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Cyber-physical systems and digital twins

Physical systems that are linked to a computer and virtual replicas of physical objects and systems.

What is it?

Cyber–physical systems are any physical system that is linked to a computer while a 'Digital Twin' is a virtual replica of physical objects and systems. To understand digital twins, we first need to understand models and Internet of Things (IOT) devices. The earliest forms of cyber-physical systems were scientific models that were generated by using sensors connected to people's limbs, cars and other physical objects to create accurate digital models of those items. Historically these scientific models were very limited in their ability to change simultaneously with its physical counterpart.

The idea that sensors can be connected to items that are then connected to the internet was very popular and these devices were called Internet of Things or IOT devices. It was envisaged that IOT devices would give us the ability to monitor the real-time state of items like solar panels, electricity grids, temperature of plants etc. However, many of these IOT devices tended to operate individually rather than operate as a part of a larger system of sensors. In other words, people were able to get data from various sensors, but those sensors were not necessarily creating a holistic picture or context of the state of an item. 

With increased cloud services, computer processing power, big data analytics and reduced cost of computer processors, it has become affordable for companies and scientific research organisations to render data from sensors in near real-time. This has enabled businesses and research organisations to create models of products and/or processes that change as its physical counterpart changes. This ability for models to change in real-time is a result of access to timely sensor data have made them quite life-like. It is this ability for models to change in step with their physical counterpart that has resulted in the term ‘digital twin’.

Increasingly cyber-physical systems such as autonomous cars need to analyse data from sensors quicker and to do this, they need to bypass central servers or cloud services. This has meant that in some cases, analysis of data happens onboard or near to some of the systems. This sort of computing is called edge-computing and in combination with 5G technology, it is enabling the creation of much more complex digital twins and other cyber-physical systems. With edge computing, cyber-physical systems like autonomous vehicles will be able to sense the environment, analyse that data and decide on a course of action. Enough digital twins and other cyber-physical systems connected to edge computing devices will eventually bring about a cyber-physical world. 

What problem are they solving?

People are used to collaborating in 3D or 4D environments, however many of our collaborative tools are built for a 2D environment. Cyber-physical systems solve this problem and more when combined with digital twins that utilise virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) devices to interact with the digital twin. Using VR or AR, a person can feel as though they are in a room, car, plane and many other systems that might be very far away from them. Increasingly the technology to allow this level of interaction is becoming more affordable and available.

What can they be used for?

CSIRO Data61 Mixed Reality Lab

Digital twins are important in manufacturing and industry because it allows companies to discover defects in real-time. CSIRO’s Mixed Reality Lab is a research room with industrial and consumer cameras and sensing equipment that can capture detailed information about a physical object and the space surrounding it.

CSIRO uses digital twins for urban design

The NSW Spatial Digital Twin is a virtual 4D model of the Western Sydney area's built and natural environment. Unlike before when town planners and developers would use 2D models to make key decisions, now with the availability of the digital twin, other data such as change over time, underground pipes and impacts of environmental events can be included in the 3D visualisation.

What other future uses could there be?

Port Phillip Coast Hazard Assessment

Increasingly, digital twins are being used to plan for environmental change and natural disasters. With climate change increasing the frequency and severity of hazards and hazard events, it is important that we plan for the adverse impacts on communities. As sea levels rise, areas along the coast are likely to experience increased erosion, inundation, and groundwater change, which threaten the security of communities, assets and ecosystems. 

NSW Digital Twin to inform emergency responders this bushfire season

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season identified the loss of connectivity as a reoccurring issue, with the destruction of critical communications infrastructure across the state leaving at-risk communities and emergency responders cut-off from the outside world.The Inquiry found that the reliable sharing of critical infrastructure, telecommunications and spatial information will be a key component to preventing a similarly devastating fire seasons. The NSW Spatial Digital Twin has been selected to securely house, organise, and visualise the data needed to develop effective management strategies for disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery.

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