Digital Twin: A Real-Time Interactive Airport Visualization Tool

Joe Sulmona by Joe Sulmona | Aug 31, 2021

By Dr. Joe Sulmona, Facilitator for ACI Global Training

The complexity of airport operations, together with multiple service-delivery partnerships, demands overcoming the limits of manual coordination. Instead, airport Digital Twin (DT) allows decision-makers to observe the entire site and sub-systems in order to examine and optimize the details in a collaborative manner. Leading airports like Hong Kong International Airport Authority (HKIAA) are already utilizing the DT application. Lily Lai, HKIAA’s Chief Information Officer, reports that “the DT has enabled the airport to accelerate its understanding of complex systems, explore hypothetical changes, and enable faster and better business decision-making.”

Courtesy: Hong Kong International Airport Authority

The opportunity for digitization in airports

The term “Digital-Twin” refers to the real-time interactive 3D representations of existing mechanical systems and physical facilities, which allow the visualization of the ‘as built,’ while adding new digital layers for future design, ongoing monitoring, and system testing. The reality is that airports are behind in adopting DT which is already well established in advanced manufacturing and within architecture, engineering, and the construction sector. These industries already benefit from the enormous productivity gains that DT supports in terms of time savings, cost reductions, design, and quality improvement capabilities.

Broadly speaking, an airport DT can open new lines of strategic value, including:

  • Platform vision through the operational optimization of existing assets together with joint stakeholder scenario development and future planning strategies.
  • Revenue creation for first-mover operators that create airport-specific applications for sale to other airports on a global basis.
  • System innovation through partnerships with the technology sector to use DT in order to simulate new operational practices and commercial services.

Initial applications in airports

The real-time interactive 3D experience enabled by DT provides an airport with the opportunity to reconfigure and reassess the entire operation with ready access to:

  • Holistic airport view
  • Stakeholder visualization
  • As-built documents
  • Infrastructure planning
  • Asset management
  • Visualizing ground operations
  • Tracking system performance
  • Simulating emergency scenarios
  • Pre-test operational plans
  • Simulator-based staff training

DT tools can, with leadership commitment and an orientation towards process innovation, lead to transformational change in various key areas, including:

  • Protect scarce (land) resources by thoroughly analyzing the range of facility and land-use options, which are critically important prior to an Airport Board making permanent course decisions. For example, DT should be an integral Master Plan tool as it provides key stakeholders greater clarity on how the airport creates additional value for local communities and regions.
  • Digital economy gateway access is more important than ever when considering the immersive role of virtual connectivity that many industry partners, technology pioneers, and others are utilizing to establish innovative development and testing practices prior to the launch of new products and services. For example, airlines long-ago adopted advanced simulations prior to new cockpit procedure implementation. The airport’s community also wins by enabling next-generation jobs, developing digital economy skills, and attracting capital from leading global firms.
  • Real-time innovation platform that allows airports to respond to fast-paced changes in operational and commercial environments. For example, Amazon has learned that a globally oriented real-time simulation platform can generate immediate, real-time insights into market needs, new system potential, and how to best influence stakeholder interests. Airports have the capability to expand on this potential with the DT tool, and form exiting new partnerships including with educational institutions to perform joint R&D, teaching, and on-the-job training.

Digital Twin architectural concept

DT is based on a multi-fold architecture that levers the combination of new hi-definition digital inputs together with existing operational systems and airport management’s database capacity, as depicted in the following diagram. The new component, the Reality Model, is based on a high-bandwidth visual interface to seamlessly integrate how the airport functions from day to day, or could better function through scenario-based assessments.

Courtesy of GeoSim Cities Inc.

The Reality Model is a virtual replica of its real-world counterpart that is combined with existing operational data, along with standard-operating procedures and processes to describe the system’s overall state. Many airports have already implemented related tools necessary for successful DT implementation including interfaces to other geo-spatial information systems like GIS and BIM. The Reality Model must include the following capabilities to achieve effective DT functionality:

  • High precision based on spatial accuracy, meaning that every geometric feature of the terrain and built environment is accurate within 5–10 cm of its real-world location. Simulation precision is critical in DT development as what-if scenarios must not be compromised by doubts about the reliability of the visual context.
  • Digital resolution that enables strong visual clarity (typically 1 cm pixel definition) which provides an overall model perspective that approximates photo-realism and a real world “feel”.
  • Parametric capacity where the user can easily recognize discrete objects of significance (e.g., individual assets).
  • Interactivity that permits the entire scope of the Reality Model to be constructed in a manner that accelerates dialogue, creates understanding, and facilitates trust.

Digital Twin in practice: Hong Kong International Airport Authority

Numerous airports have begun implementing the DT tool with great success, including global leaders such as HKIAA. According to Lily Lai, HKIAA’s Chief Information Officer, “DT will contribute to the airport’s vision to develop itself into a smart airport which aims to apply innovation and technology to create an enjoyable and hassle-free experience for passengers, as well as enhance operational efficiency.”

Courtesy: Hong Kong International Airport Authority

Future airport city collaboration

Many cities have come to understand the benefits of DT implementation, like the city of Vancouver, Canada, which can be viewed in the following video.

Courtesy of GeoSim Cities Inc.

As most airports are situated within or in the immediate periphery of the urban areas they serve, a tremendous opportunity for collaboration exists to link the DT application with the Airport City concept. As many technology-based airport service providers are entering the field, now is the time to expand our technical and managerial knowledge of how to best use DT to improve airport performance. DT can help build critical relations with the surrounding community as part of the airport’s sustainability initiatives through truly integrated stakeholder engagement.

Joe Sulmona

Joe Sulmona

Facilitator for ACI Global Training
Dr. Luigi G. (Joe) Sulmona is a senior professional with years of experience in pursuit of innovative private and public sector airport development. Joe has a demonstrated track-record of leading multi-disciplinary teams with expertise in strategic planning, personnel coaching and training, capital and land-use planning, public administration, policy advocacy, project management, stakeholder consultation, commercial development, and community service. In recognizing success requires internal and external acceptance, Joe has wide experience in collaborative decision-making to achieve support for airport development plans, marketing strategies, and innovative commercial activities. For example, Joe has led globally significant development projects, including for the award-winning Vancouver International Airport where he led strategic planning efforts that successfully positioned YVR as an Asia-Pacific Gateway. In recent years, Dr. Sulmona has supported the development of the London Heathrow and London Gatwick Master Plans, together with successfully delivering the plans for a new airport near Rome, Italy. Dr. Sulmona currently supports ACI World’s strategic management training programs. Joe also provides strategic advice for transportation and urban development’s projects throughout the globe, in addition to participating in various transportation academic research undertakings.
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