GISCafé Industry Predictions for 2023 – WGIC

GISCafé Industry Predictions for 2023 – WGIC


January 20th, 2023 by Sanjay Gangal

By Margarita Dadyan, Content Specialist, WGIC

Margarita Dadyan

Margarita Dadyan

Utility industry is fast embracing spatial digital twins – dynamic digital replicas of physical counterparts that facilitate real-time performance monitoring and status – as they provide an excellent understanding of the criticality of assets and networks, reduce inefficiencies, improve safety and reliability, culminating in improved customer satisfaction and returns on investments.   

Historically, asset mapping has been a critical aspect of managing utility infrastructure and improving the efficiencies of utility service providers. Such mapping helped engineering design programmes, supported early digitalization, and integrated into corporate GIS.

However, the technology adoption was slow until the end of the 20th century across the industry. The utility industry has seen more transformation in the last two decades than in the previous 100 years. In the early 2000s, when the IoT (Internet of Things) started gaining acceptance, the utility industry quickly moved from IoT to smart grids to grid modernization, digital transformation, and energy transition to digital twins.

IoT connected everything to everything else with a premise to create new insights and improve situational awareness. The IoT revolution was prolonged to gain momentum when the smart grid concept eventually came to hand. Smart grids improved utility companies’ reliability, given customers a choice, and implemented new grid intelligence through self-healing networks and automation. However, achieving any return on investment (ROI) was challenging.

Grid modernization came to upgrade the ageing Infrastructure and combine operational data with other corporate data. It was followed by digital transformation when mobile devices came to be integrated into corporate enterprise workflows. UNSDGs were introduced in 2015, driving momentum to the work countries were doing as part of the UN Millennium Development Goals (UNMDGs), and later, the Paris Agreement was signed in 2017. UNSGD Goal 13 Climate Action and the Paris Agreement were all about the need for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Following this, many countries designed energy transition projects to reach decarbonization targets and implement green energy solutions. This necessitated an overhaul of operational technologies and continuous monitoring and auditing of every function and process.

Data Silos and Digital Twins

Seamless access to relevant data to stakeholders soon became foundational to a utility’s operations. However, data flow disruptions often occur because data is stored in digital tools disconnected from each other, resulting in data silos. Such silos reduce the ability to make informed decisions, causing many inefficiencies. Network operators utilize databases across their business from vegetation management to asset management to power flow monitoring. However, there is limited communication between these systems and their corporate GIS,points out Shelby Coder, Solution Owner – Power, at Fugro, a geo-data company. The imperative for the utility industry is to reduce and eliminate data silos, and the obvious next step of evolution became the digital twin technology. And a seamless flow of data, information, and insights across the various departments and functions became the premise for the evolution of digital twin technology.

Spatial Digital Twin Concept Gains Ground

Digital twin technology abstracts and models everything. Digital twins go beyond simply visualizing and digitalizing networks, assets, and facilities. Geographic information systems (GIS) became a framework for creating and integrating the early digital twins by storing, analyzing, and visualizing the data about the assets’ location. Besides GIS, digital twins also receive and integrate operations and maintenance data, engineering data, photogrammetry, LiDAR, and sensor data. These data flows enable digital twins to create and represent a dynamic and interactive copy of the real-world asset or infrastructure and facilitate real-time performance monitoring and status updates.

Underscoring the role of digital twins in addressing the data silos and process silos, Agendra Kumar, Managing Director of Esri India, a GIS software and solutions company, says, “Moving from one process to another creates integration issues resulting in information loss, be it within the organization or across the organization/departments. Most of this information loss happens at the cusp where two systems meet. This could be either due to immature, non-universal data protocols or a lack of interoperability. Digital twins help to bring these mismatches to the forefront and address the gap (industry standards and protocols), thereby increasing the efficiency of information flow.”

However, utility organizations must first create a shared, connected devices and network model to benefit from the technology. Then, it is imperative to develop management processes and systems to leverage the combined digital twin-connected models with all departments/organizations that need it. Many utilities are beginning to leverage a data lake or cloud services to support the shared model management for each of the organizational silos to leverage for their applications and analytics functions.

The potential of digital twins in the utility industry is steadily improving, considering their utilization level and the quantum of investments poured into it. World Geospatial Industry Council’s (WGIC) recent report on spatial digital twins identified that the “construction, infrastructure and utilities appear to be strong contributors to the development of spatial digital twins. According to Juniper’s research cited in the same report, in 2021, the estimated revenue associated with digital twins was $12.7 billion, a third of which is expected from the energy and utility industry. With the growing belief in the future of digital twins, by 2026, the market size will rise to $45 billion with ~$25 billion total addressable market for the geospatial industry.

Level of Sophistication

Digital twins’ sophistication level advances with every new investment, followed by a successful use case. Though there are many successful use cases, digital twins’ potential is yet to be completely uncovered. “The use of spatial digital twins in utilities is still at a nascent stage with a promising future,points Agendra.

While the current implementations are essentially early Proof of Concepts (PoCs), for the digital twin technology to deliver optimal benefits, its level of sophistication should be dynamic. On this note, Brad Williams, VP, Industry Strategy & Innovation Engineering, Energy and Water Global Business Unit, Oracle, a cloud technology company, believes that “Digital twins should become part of a comprehensive utility digitization strategy that can be justified by process efficiency with more accurate, optimal, and timely solution results.”

Maxar, a space technology and intelligence company, believes that a promising future is very close as “utility companies are already using GIS technologies that can help them with the implementation of digital twins. Access to 3D and 4D data will expedite the adoption and use.” However, Shane Gwilt, Mobile Mapping and Utility Survey Manager, Leica Geosystems of Hexagon, a digital reality solutions company, cautions that “The largest challenge is handling mass data at speed. Computing power is increasing rapidly and is a driving force behind the success and uptake of digital twins. Software packages can now generally handle most geospatial data sets. However, ground penetrating radar (GPR) data are yet to be incorporated in their native form. Many leading GIS programmes are now accepting most data formats and data sets, such as point clouds and 3D models. These data types will soon be commonplace even in open-source applications.

Evaluating the results of the applications of digital twins today and thinking about its future, Shelby points out that “The next steps for spatial digital twins will be in sensors (customers and on grid assets), data storage and data analytics (ability to consume and process large volumes of data from disparate locations), and predictive maintenance programmes to optimise asset replacement cycles, lowering maintenance budgets.”

Adoption and Implementation

Geospatial service providers are developing sensors, software, and services to create, host, integrate and analyze disparate data, bringing value to digital twin implementation. Besides, geospatial companies are developing and integrating such technological requirements as image analytics or IoT integration based on automation, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI).

Oracle, with its many solutions, including digital asset and operational device management solution, “supports full digital twin modelling and connected network model management for planning, Operations, and Maintenance for Distributed Energy Resources (DER), Grid, and Asset optimization,” informs Brad.

Hexagon’s software and field applications, for example, enable intuitive and intelligent processing and make collaboration possible with sharing of data. Hexagon is building compatible export formats to allow data export incorporating all the essential GIS data fields. The company notes, “This allows direct import into GIS-based packages for digital twins, which remove most of the back-end processing and speeds up the workflow for both data collector and delivery to clients.”

The geospatial industry is advancing digital twin implementation by actively investing in acquiring and innovating new technologies. Fugro, for example, embraced a ‘triple A’ approach to offer integrated data Acquisition, Analysis and Advice. Designed specifically for power utilities, the Fugro ROAMES® solution combines high accuracy 3D network model with cutting-edge ML and cloud computing. “Along with a full-scale 3D network, we also model the environment surrounding the assets – which is used to inform on critical clearances, vegetation intrusions, and the spatial accuracy of our clients’ GIS schematic,says Shelby. The analytics of Fugro ROAMES® helps utility clients implement digital inspection programs and reduce their carbon footprint, inspection cycles, and operational expenses.

Esri, with its flagship cloud-based mapping and analytics software, is leading the game. “ArcGIS Pro is at the forefront, helping thousands of customers to digitize legacy maps, convert field survey data and bring CAD data to be part of a digital twin. Additionally, ArcGIS Urban is helping numerous smart cities to create digital twins,informs Agendra.

Service and solution providers too are partaking in the enterprise adoption of digital twins. Willy Govender, CEO of Terra Analytics, a South Africa-based geospatial solution provider, says, “We are assisting customers to better manage and store their data, embrace digital transformation, and start preparing for metaverse/digital twin implementations.”

Going Green with Digital Twins

Regulatory requirements are fast changing to enable countries to meet the UN SDGs prompting utility companies to transition from carbon-intensive models to decarbonized models. Digital twin adoption is crucial in helping companies in this transition. Simulation of models, real-time monitoring, data analysis from different sensors, and 360-degree data view of the physical assets, infrastructures, and networks help to gather comprehensive and timely data. The contextualization of this data helps stakeholders understand the asset status for predicting and optimizing their performance. Digital twins improve the energy consumption of assets, predict the remaining useful life, and reduce the amount of energy spent on logistics by enabling remote diagnostics.

Agendra looks at the use of the digital twins through the lens of smart grid implementation, renewable energy management, better integration, and more efficient transmission. “They help the utility companies to overcome the smart grid challenges and achieve optimal operation, management, and control of energy assets, he asserts.

Smart digital realities enable fast and intuitive access to crucial insights for better decision-making. They allow easy interrogation between many datasets. Shane believes that thermal UAV data could be one example that identifies building heat loss in the model. “Simulations of various scenarios within the model allow decision-makers to identify potential errors before investing and without wasting resources,” he says and adds,More accurate geospatial data, easier access, automated processing and interconnected systems will make the industry more productive, more efficient and less wasteful, reducing the overall environmental costs of business operations.

As the world moves towards green solutions and more sustainable and resilient infrastructure, the utility industry has a substantial role in transforming its infrastructure to adapt to these changes. “Spatial digital twins will be a big push for planners and policymakers and would help encourage local energy production and usage, thereby cutting the transmission cost and carbon footprint in the longer run,” substantiates Kumar.

Along with the go-green drive, distributed energy resources (DERs such as electric vehicle charging systems, rooftop solar PV, energy storage, demand response, and other load shaping devices) and energy storage systems are rapidly increasing. “This will make utilities seek out more advanced digital twin models to enable full situational awareness and optimization of DERs required for safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness,” Brad reasons.

Making data accessible in a common environment allows all stakeholders to review data in an intuitive way. The 3D nature of the system and intelligent database ensures that information is easily available at the click of a button. Shelby explains, “By collecting data from these resources and understanding their spatial locations, network operators will be able to use near real-time data to help inform the availability of storage systems that could be used to store surplus energy generated from solar or wind sources. They can also be used in emergency cases due to a power cut or to increase the energy load for a certain part of the network. It also provides information on energy usage across the network operators’ license area, which helps them to drive their maintenance programs by identifying high and low usage areas.

Is ROI Justified?

WGIC, in its report, identified that “Successful investments in spatial digital twins all start with a clear business problem or organizational need. While both digital and spatial digital twins can be effective and provide positive outcomes for decision-makers and the community, they often require heavy investment across a full value chain with ongoing costs to maintain and improve the ecosystem.

Shelby claims that their “clients are seeing significant OPEX savings due to shorter inspection cycles, less boots-on-the-groundwork, a reduced carbon footprint, and fewer lost-time incidents due to improved asset management policies. CAPEX is being reduced as our clients have more and better data and analytics on their assets. This allows for improved predictive maintenance programmes on when the assets should be replaced or if they can prolong their life cycle by early intervention or preventative measures.

Shane, too, believes that digital twins can be incredibly cost-effective. According to him, building a digital twin is primarily an initial investment in obtaining the software and importing original data sets, making digital twins easily scalable. “New datasets can be imported as and when available, and the database aspect allows easy incorporation of legacy datasets. Moreover, the cost-saving potential through more efficient operations, better planning, and proactive maintenance are considerable.

Digital twins open the capability of stimulating multiple scenarios in a model (e.g., grid failure, asset outage) to understand the errors and apply preventative measures. With this in mind, Agendra reiterates, “Digital twins bring cost savings, optimization of resources, and higher productivity.” For example, the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources (GCDWR) uses a digital twin to better manage its vertical assets at the Beaver Ruin Pump Station. Detailed modelling of the pump station enabled GCDWR to improve safety and increase maintenance efficiency.

The other example is Western Power Distribution (WPD). The company delivers electricity to 8 million customers over a service area of 55,500 square kilometres in the UK. Their key challenge is vegetation management, which is also one of their main operational expenses. This pushed WPD to look for better vegetation management methods. They eventually found them at Fugro, whose solution allows WPD to identify critical clearance issues such as ground clearances and vegetation intrusions to keep the network safe and operable throughout its life cycle. The solution enhanced WPD’s network visibility and reduced the need to patrol their network area physically.

It is not just the current implementation of digital twins in utilities that showed significant results but also its potential to bring even more benefits. Investing in digital twin technology will open up new features and opportunities, resulting in improved financial returns to the utility company and higher consumer satisfaction.

*The article was first published at Energy Central as part of the Enhancing the Digital Utility – September 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE.

About Author:

Margarita Dadyan is an alumna of the American University of Armenia (AUA) with a bachelor’s degree in English and Communications. As a young professional, she started her career as a Manager of International Partnerships at SoftConstruct. Currently, she serves as Content Specialist at the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC) and as the Senior Marketing Coordinator at AUA’s Open Education. In her role as a Content Specialist at WGIC, she produces content demonstrating geospatial technologies’ role and value in the world economy and society.

Category: Industry Predictions

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