In 2022, Mendoza in Argentina decided to use a city-scale digital twin to map green infrastructure and their trees to increase city air quality and climate resilience. GenMap created a digital twin of Mendoza’s green infrastructure by quickly identifying one million trees. They used Bentley Systems’ mobile mapping tech to digitalize, geo-reference, and obtain the dimensions of each tree and surrounding roads and sidewalks.
Rodrigo Fernandes, Director of Empowering Sustainable Development Goals at Bentley Systems, says that allowed for efficient management of the health condition of each tree.
“The built environment and natural environment interconnect,” said Fernandes in an email statement. “Modern infrastructure systems are highly interdependent, and they all have the environment upon which they are built in common.”
“Efficiently addressing some of the most critical sustainability and resilience challenges, such as decarbonization, climate risks, energy transition, and land and water resources, require high fidelity infrastructure digital twins that include the built assets and their physical and geographic interdependencies with the natural environment and ecosystems,” said Fernandes.
Fernandes says that digital twin solutions deliver a positive impact, or, at a minimum, reduced impact, in the surrounding environment and ecosystems, including wildlife.
“They can do this by accelerating the adoption of circularity principles (reducing water, waste, and material consumption by design) and providing better tools for improved climate resilience and adaptation,” said Fernandes.
Musidora Jorgensen, Chief Sustainability Officer of Microsoft UK, says digital twins can be used to create a virtual replica of a natural environment to understand the impact of specific projects and constructions, such as wind farms, on local ecosystems.
“These models use a variety of sensors and cameras around the environment, sometimes both above and below sea level,” said Jorgensen in an email statement. “The resulting digital model can then be studied to help streamline its physical, real-life counterpart while improving our understanding of how ecological, environmental, and infrastructural worlds interact.”
In January 2023, Microsoft worked with SSE Renewables and Avanade to create a proof-of-concept Azure Digital Twin of an offshore wind farm in Scottish coastal waters and its local environment.
Jorgensen hopes this will encourage the sector to develop renewable energy solutions that positively impact ecosystems.
“Currently, energy companies rely on manual ways of collecting data on how wind farms affect local environments,” said Jorgensen. “By using technology to automate the process, we can understand the full impact of new turbines before, during, and after they are built, from monitoring changes in aquatic life and reefs to airflow and bird life.”
Jorgensen says Azure IoT technology makes it easier for conservationists and researchers to gather real-time data and monitor the local wildlife – from tracking changes in vegetation patterns to animal populations.
“Beyond monitoring, the technology can also be used to build predictive models that can simulate the potential impact of new developments on the environment,” said Jorgensen. “These simulations are crucial to helping conservationists anticipate the impact of environmental changes on wildlife populations and the ecosystem before the physical construction of these projects even begin.”
“As the world moves towards a more sustainable future, organizations and businesses must understand and measure their environmental initiatives' impact on local ecosystems,” said Jorgensen. “Digital twins combined with IoT technologies can facilitate the process of capturing the huge amounts of data that could help guide projects to embrace sustainability before construction even begins.”
Understanding the impact on ecosystems
Jorgensen says the offshore wind farm project details how digital twins could transform how we study and understand the impact of developments on local ecosystems.
“The project would use devices such as radar, lidar, motion sensors, satellites, and drones to build an accurate, real-time view of a wind farm area,” said Jorgensen. “The resulting model would then be used to study the impact on wildlife throughout its lifetime, ensuring sustainability is kept at the heart of any initiative.”
Jorgensen says that by deploying a digital twin model, SSE Renewables can acquire accurate predictive data to assess their strategy before implementation. For example, they could build an artificial reef on the sea floor in the virtual model to attempt to predict its impact.
“If fish colonize the reef, they can execute the strategy in the real world,” said Jorgensen. “This ultimately helps SSE Renewables to understand how a development is affecting an area in real-time and monitor the ecosystem throughout the lifecycle of the wind farm to minimize any potential negative impact ahead, during, and post-construction.”
Jorgensen adds in another scenario, once the wind farm is operational, sensors are used to affect how the wind farm works, so if sensors identify a flock of birds heading towards one of the turbines, it could stop that turbine until the birds pass to protect migration paths.
“Eventually, we envision these models will help improve and streamline the approvals process for projects like wind farms, helping to further our transition to greener energy while safeguarding the natural environment,” said Jorgensen.