Digital Twin Showcase: Mission Control for Earth
Climate change is set to have a profound effect on our environment over the coming decades. While initiatives like the Net Zero Strategy aim to regain control of carbon emissions, the reality is that we will continue to feel the effects of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere for generations to come.
The space sector and earth observation (EO) data have been instrumental in demonstrating that climate change is occurring and the scale at which human activity is impacting our planet (e.g., deforestation, pollution, land cover change).
It is hoped that by incorporating EO data within a global digital twin, the space sector can again play a critical role in understanding how climate change will impact society – and how society could alter the trajectory of climate change.
In this second post in our blog series on digital twins and space, we look at why EO data is suited for digital twin use, how it is currently being utilised to benefit both the environment and society, and how the digital industry in the UK is extracting the most from EO data.
What Can Earth Observation Offer Digital Twins?
Digital twins help inform decision-makers by leveraging real-time data to build a virtual replica of a system that, throughout its lifecycle, is functionally identical to the real-life equivalent. Digital twins can then be used to predict how a system will react to changes, allowing the user to test innovative solutions to real life challenges in a virtual environment.
Given these strengths, a digital twin of the Earth would provide a great advantage to help policy makers understand how our environment will change, and what are the best steps to mitigate further environmental, social, and economic damage.
Importantly, the fidelity of such a digital twin including its sophisticated models is defined by the quality of data used and how well they represent the process they are monitoring.
To create a virtual twin at the scale of a landscape, biosphere, or even the planet, we cannot rely solely on isolated measurements from single locations, rather we need frequent observations of our entire environment.
Operating in regular orbits around our Earth, satellites acquiring EO data offer unparalleled opportunities to inspect huge areas of the planet’s surface, rapidly, and in detail (up to 15×15 cm pixel resolution).
Currently, over 1,000 EO satellites are in operation, producing several terabytes of data every day: containing critical information about the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the Earth’s surfaces, oceans, and atmosphere.
EO satellites operate with a range of different instruments for observing the Earth. Those with optical devices separate reflected sunlight into specific wavelength ranges (multispectral imaging (MSI)), known as spectral bands (e.g., red, green, or blue light). These sensors even observe the light that we can’t see with our eyes, including ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. Each of these spectral bands reveals critical information about the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. Such satellites describe land cover change, vegetation health, changes in sea surface temperature, weather patterns, and pollution.
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites do not focus on reflected solar radiation, rather they actively illuminate the surface with cloud penetrating microwave (long-wave) radiation. SAR satellites are crucial to maintaining frequent observations. By actively illuminating the Earth’s surface, SAR satellites monitor key Earth system processes in all conditions, day, or night, including, sea ice, land cover change, tectonic activity, soil moisture, and flooding.
The vast volumes of EO data that are acquired are frequently deployed in many industries, including defence and intelligence, infrastructure and engineering, agriculture, energy and power, financial services, and urban development (road networks, land use/land cover types).
But it is the environment where they could have the greatest impact on the sustainability of our planet, and the people and industries that it hosts.
Mission Control Earth
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported the state of the current climate. They showed how climate change had driven an average ~1⁰ C increase in global temperatures compared to the 1850-1900 average. Precipitation rates globally are higher, summer sea ice extent is dwindling, glaciers are retreating, and sea level is rising faster than at any point in the last 120 years.
Importantly, the effects of climate change are affecting different regions of the Earth at different rates, with warming in the Arctic regions occurring at nearly twice the rate of the global average. This dynamic translates to society, as different global communities face a range of adverse weather extremes.
To mitigate the threat to populations, industries, and economies, the Global Future Council on Space has described the need for a ‘Mission Control’ for Earth, which will utilise increasing EO capabilities to monitor each of the Earth’s critical systems within a digital twin framework.
Figure X: Digital twin of the Earth, as proposed by DestinE (Destination Earth) program will combine earth observation data and ground measurements with sophisticated social, economic, and environmental modelling to embed insight into the sustainability of our planet.
A Digital Twin of the World: Destination Earth
Digital twin Earth, also known as Destination Earth (DestinE) is a major initiative of the European Commission, bringing great European minds from industry and research to develop a holistic digital representation of a functional Earth (Fig. X) and help the EU achieve key environmental and digital goals.
DestinE will be one of the first digital twins to embrace the capabilities of EO, combining these data with an unprecedented volume of geospatial information and socio-economic data, to monitor each of the Earth’s key environmental, social, and economic systems (Fig. Y).
Figure Y: DestinE (Destination Earth) proposed ‘Data Lake’ of federated social, economic, and environmental distributed data feeds to be curated, analysed, and visualised within the Digital Twin Engine. Source: European Commission
At the core of this project sits the Digital Twin Engine (DTE), a bespoke digital twin platform aimed at large scale spatial data assimilation. This will form the basic structure for numerous complimentary digital twins, enabling holistic environmental modelling of the sea, atmosphere, land, and sea ice processes.
DestinE will provide decision-makers, experts, and non-expert users with high quality information, services, trustworthy models, scenarios, forecasts, and visualisations to tackle complex environmental and societal challenges by:
- Curating user-friendly data, for easy assimilation by both expert and non-expert users.
- Monitoring and simulating the Earth’s system developments (land, marine, atmosphere, biosphere) and human interventions.
- Assessing and predicting long-term changes to local climates, raising awareness, and supporting management.
- Anticipating environmental disasters and the resultant socio-economic crises to save lives and avoid large economic downturns.
- Simulating potential policy decisions around energy, transport, and land use practices, in a virtual environment to better predict the impact of human-induced change.
- Enabling development and testing of future climate scenarios, integrating all environmental systems with a level of resolution currently impossible to reach.
- Supporting sustainable development for climate adaptation and mitigation at multi-decadal timescales, at regional and national levels.
By 2030, DestinE aims to deliver a full digital replica of the globe, incorporating a host of environmental twins. The first two to be developed with the DTE are the Extreme Natural Disasters twin, and Climate Change Adaptation twin, with both expected by 2024. These first attempts will both provide critical insights into the worst impacts of a changing climate but also establish the framework for future twins, including coastal ecosystems, forests, agriculture, and a Digital Twin Ocean.
Innovation in the UK: Creating Digital Excellence in Environmental Stewardship
In the UK, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently set out its strategy to digitally enable environmental science. Aimed at enhancing data capabilities in the UK, through training, data access, and collaboration across the industry.
Central to this strategy is the digital ecosystem (Fig. Z), where the collection, distribution, and analysis of EO data play a crucial role in developing excellence in UK environmental science.
Figure Z: Digital ecosystem strategy for digitally enabled environmental science, implemented by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
This digital ecosystem has generated great initiatives, such as:
- The NERC Environmental Data Service (EDS), providing a central repository, where EO and other spatial data can be accessed by academic and professional users.
- Supercomputer capabilities through the JASMIN facility, a UK-based data analysis facility specifically used for environmental science.
- An upcoming NERC-led digital environment, a UK-wide digital twin which integrates IoT networks, EO and geospatial data to assess, monitor and forecast the state of the natural environment.
- Innovative data science tools, such as IceNet, a probabilistic, deep learning sea ice forecasting system, trained on thousands of EO images and climate simulations.
By adopting a digital strategy, NERC, and other prestigious institutions such as the Met Office increase the UK’s position of excellence in the field.
As the digital twin industry continues to stretch into new areas, it makes sense that we utilise their increasingly insightful capacity to monitor and steward the natural environment.
By combining EO data with a host of spatial information, world leading data analysis, and model simulations, digital strategies, including digital twins can move us closer to the full potential of EO data.
Through these strategies, and continued industry collaboration the hope is to deliver greater insights into our Earth’s dynamic environment, drawing insights from local and remote locations to uncover the full impact of social and environmental policy and help support sustainable development.
What do we do next
While the combination of EO and digital twins for environmental stewardship holds great potential, a lot of work still needs to be done to realise it. For a digital twin to be truly successful and sustainable, a huge effort needs to be made to encourage cooperation between data providers, industries, and nations.
Continue to follow our blog series, where in the next two installments we discuss the relationship between digital twin methodology and In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing, and how digital twin stakeholders look to develop a set of clear principles, aimed at ensuring digital twins maintain a clear purpose, are trustworthy, and function effectively.
 Including: European Space Agency (ESA), European Centre for Medium range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF), and European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT)