New report paves way for future environmental digital twins

A new report outlines key recommendations needed for future environmental Digital Twins if they are to fulfil their potential to be a step-change in the way we understand our evolving environment.

To realise the potential of digital twins there is the need to understand their essential underpinning infrastructures and capacities. A consortium of experts, led by the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC), have published ‘An Information Management Framework for Environmental Digital Twins (IMFe)’ which outlines the building blocks to allow the digital twin community to realise the potential of environmental digital twins.

Dr John Siddorn, NOC Associate Director of Digital Ocean, said, “Digital twins are already revolutionising how some sectors work, and should allow us to better understand our planet, and be a solution towards net-zero targets and climate change impact. They could be a paradigm shift in protecting and managing our environment. The report recommendations cover everything from a conceptual framework, management and governance, common language to pilot studies and computational architecture. If we can continue the report’s ethos of sharing and working together the future of digital twins and environmental solutions is bright, I look forward to new partnerships and building upon our recommendations with the community.”

Digital twins are virtual representation of an object or system (for example the natural environment) of varying levels of complexity and feedbacks, including those that are updated as the real system changes using observations. Observations may come from a range of sources, some traditionally used in the environmental science community such as satellite remote sensing or sensors on ships or weather stations, or through the emergence of Internet of Things sensors (as is seen on everything from fridges to cars to large-scale built infrastructure). A digital twin uses simulations or data-based methods such as machine learning to generate a replica (‘twin’) of the system that can be used to understand the system itself.

The emergence of increasingly large, diverse, observed data sources and the development of digital twin technologies combined provides an opportunity for the environmental science community to make a step-change in our understanding of the natural environment. But to realise the value of environmental digital twins they need to be developed following agreed standards where interoperability is required so that data from twins can be shared and the information can be trusted by the user.

To enable this vision, an environmental information management framework (IMFe) is needed that establishes the components for effective information management within and across the digital twin ecosystem. It must enable secure, resilient interoperability of data, and is a reference point to facilitate data use in line with security, legal, commercial, privacy and other relevant concerns.

Professor Kirstine Dale, Principal Fellow for Data Science, Met Office, commented, “This IMFe report marks an important milestone and provides a crucial framework for developing environmental digital twins in the UK. The innovative partnership between the Met Office, NERC and NOC lays the groundwork for the creation of digital twins of the environment and will provide the leadership that will be vital in maximising the opportunities they present. I look forward to building on this important work and collaborating with partners across the environmental science community to support efforts to tackle climate change and achieve Net Zero.”

The report concludes, “The IMFe consortium have realised in their work that what is being proposed underpins not just digital twin development but a broader range of efforts in supporting integrative science, bringing together data and modelling assets into a common framework to allow them to work together.”

“The moment is right to build on this momentum and thrust the UK to the forefront for digital twins of the natural environment, whilst also enabling exciting developments linking digital twins of the built and natural environment. This will require investment and a broader strategic vision to ensure that development of digital twins is aligned with other related developments around digital research infrastructure.”

Dr Anna Angus-Smyth, Associate Director of Digital Environment, Infrastructure, and Data at NERC said, “Our ambition is to place the effective use of data and digital technology at the heart of environmental science. Building on our existing strengths in acquiring and using data, emerging technologies such as digital twins offer exciting opportunities to transform the way environmental scientists undertake research, as well as advance our understanding of the natural world and ability to mitigate against the effects of climate change. We are pleased to support the cross organisational and sectoral collaborations needed to build a vibrant community and realise the ambitions outlined in the report."

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has recently published its digital strategy, the first of its kind for NERC, which sets out a vision for digitally enabled environmental science for the next decade. This is echoed in the UK Met Office’s Research and Innovation Strategy that includes the vision of transforming the weather and climate research and services through deploying transformative technologies such as Digital Twins. This strategy places data and digital technologies at the heart of UK environmental science. These pioneering digital twins (together with the use of AI, robotics and autonomous vehicles) have the capacity to underpin operational planning and reduce the carbon expenditure for data capture, thus supporting the Net-Zero movement.

This work has been jointly commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (UKRI) and the Met Office under the project: Towards An Information Management Framework for Environmental Digital Twins (Grant Ref: 2021DTIMF1Siddorn). The IMFe consortium included experts, advisors and collaborators from across the National Oceanography Centre, Met Office, British Geological Survey, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The recommendations are based on evidence collected by the consortium through community-wide discussions, workshops and stakeholder engagement.

Further information

Download and read the IMFe summary report

Read the NERC Digital Strategy

Download and read the Met Office Research and Innovation Strategy

Read the Met Office Data Science Framework