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This article was contributed by Mike Winn, CEO and cofounder of DroneDeploy.
While consumer tech players ramp up investments in the metaverse, the business-to-business (B2B) world is growing the metaverse’s more pragmatic commercial parallel: digital twins. Amazon recently launched TwinMaker, Microsoft Digital Twins, and Google Supply Chain Twin. Matterport is driving digital twin concepts into the minds of home buyers with a digital twin of houses for sale available within the listings. And industrial players that built their companies on this concept are already going public, like Bentley (which has a Market Cap of $10 billion).
All of these companies are investing in a rapidly expanding market. According to Markets and Markets, the digital twin market will grow an estimated 15 times to $48 billion in 2026.
Digital twins: A collision of the physical and virtual worlds
Digital twins are evolving from simple computer-aided design (CAD) drawings to fully operational virtual environments. The models are not simply from CAD, but the whole physical reality: a digital replica of a space, with millimeter accuracy, all captured through imagery and LiDAR. Much of this is captured by aerial and ground robots and then augmented with sensors, enabling the understanding of flows, pressures, energy, and other aspects captured at millisecond resolution.
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A digital twin synchronizes the data between the natural world and the digital environment (the twin), allowing people to take actions and make decisions in the virtual environment that can be quickly manifested in the real world. Today, with data updated in real time, digital twins help by giving companies the most accurate understanding of their business operations, providing a significant competitive advantage.
The next generation of digital twins construction
While the concepts behind digital twins are decades old, originating at NASA, these ideas are being democratized beyond rocket scientists to industries operating in the physical world. Core to this democratization is the accessibility of reality capture, IoT sensors, and cloud computing.
Simply put: digital twins are models of the physical world — all created from data. Computer vision and AI process the data into realistic representations, sometimes even integrating them with schedules, CAD models, project plans, and much more. Once created, digital twins help by allowing users to not only get the current status of the physical environment, but also run simulations of various future possibilities to better make business decisions.
Companies can inspect miles of railroad track or thousands of acres of a solar power plant, determining which panels and strings need repairs. Residential solar companies like Sunrun automatically capture a digital twin of each house they install solar panels on, enabling three times faster roof surveying without the danger of surveyors climbing on roofs. Construction companies like Rogers-O’Brien found they could perform inspections 50 times faster, leveraging digital twins.
Beyond the obvious efficiency and safety advantages, companies are improving communication and collaboration while bettering decision-making accuracy. The entire process saves time and resources and provides one accurate “source of truth” for documentation needs.
The practical applications of digital twins seem endless, already enabling more and more work to transition to virtual environments. Beyond individual sites, we’re seeing companies like Nvidia using this technology to battle climate change, and FEops is improving the study and treatment of heart disease. We are truly just scratching the surface of how to best utilize this technology.
Looking ahead, digital twins have incredible potential to revolutionize how industries work. In fact, digital twins are on track to enable the complete automation of physical worksites. As a part of routine maintenance, an energy technician could dispatch a drone to fly over a solar power plant and identify any thermal hotspots or problem areas and results could prompt ground robots to walk any identified problem area and relay any issues to the technicians. This would all be made possible through programming both the aerial and ground robots with a digital twin (map) of the plant.
While companies like Meta and Nvidia make headlines with their bets on the Metaverse — perhaps changing the way the world socializes and plays — there are real questions on the value, feasibility, and timing of such large-scale projects. But the commercial parallel of digital twins in the industrial world is already changing how our world works today, making businesses safer and more efficient.
Mike Winn is the CEO and cofounder of DroneDeploy.
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