The UK’s science research and innovation funding public body, UK Research and Innovation, has launched five projects to harness the potential of digital twinning technology to transform environmental science.
The projects will share a total of £2.8m (US$3.6m) in funding delivered by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), in partnership with the Met Office, as part of the Twinning Capability for the Natural Environment (TWINE) program. The digital twin pilot projects are intended to demonstrate how research using Earth observation data and emerging digital twinning technologies can transform environmental science across priority areas including climate change, biodiversity and ecosystems, and natural hazards. The projects will last a maximum duration of 15 months.
The five projects will develop digital twins in: coastal ocean ecosystems for assimilation to marine system models; ocean glider observations for ocean models that underpin weather forecasts; the operational flights of a research aircraft; water-related hazard forecasting in Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire; and a wave overtopping to produce a warning tool for wave hazards.
The first project, ‘Synchronising Earth observation and modeling frameworks towards a digital twin ocean (SyncED-Ocean)’, will be led by Matthew Palmer, head of science for digital innovation and marine autonomy at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. This project is intended to deliver a digital twin pilot demonstrator that combines data from satellite Earth observations and marine autonomous robots for assimilation to marine system models to provide an optimized virtual coastal ocean ecosystem. The demonstrator uses artificial intelligence techniques to couple real and virtual systems to create an agile, adaptive digital twin framework. This framework can be used to support future research, policy and commercial applications that seek to improve understanding and the management of the natural environment.
The second project, MAS-DT, will be led by Justin Buck, senior data scientist at the National Oceanography Centre. It will develop a digital twin to optimize ocean glider observations to maximize their impact on ocean models, which underpin NERC research priorities and weather forecasts. The demonstrator digital twin will combine Earth observations with sub-surface ocean glider data and operational ocean models. The resulting four-dimensional picture, which will presented within a user interface, is intended to enable scientists to plan ocean glider observations to maximize utility. This feedback between scientists, Earth observation data and glider operations in near real time will maximize the value of the observations collected and their impact on ocean forecasting along with NERC research.
The virtual integration of satellite and in-situ observation networks (VISION) project will be led by Nathan Luke Abraham, a researcher at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the Director of Research at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. It is expected to deliver a toolkit and novel visualizations that will enable better integration of models and observations to enhance our confidence in future climate projections. It will also develop a digital twin to improve the operational flights of the FAAM Airborne Laboratory atmospheric research aircraft. The aim is to improve the flight plans to better match the scientific aims and also to reduce the number of flights necessary to achieve those aims. It will bring together a team of atmospheric modelers, scientists, software engineers and satellite experts to deliver a novel framework to reduce the carbon footprint of the UK research aircraft.
The FloodTwin project will be led by Tom Coulthard, professor of physical geography at the University of Hull. This project will build a digital twin for water-related hazard forecasting and decision making for Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, a region heavily impacted by hydrometeorological hazards such as flooding. A digital twin for flooding is intended to enable stakeholders to try out different management methods and conduct scenario analysis. The novel approach is to co-produce the digital twin in collaboration with multisectoral end users, as well as engage with hydrology and flooding in terms of data integration and the physical processes involved.
Led by Nieves Valiente, lecturer in marine sciences (coastal processes) at the University of Plymouth, the Splash project will develop digital approaches to predict wave hazards. It will create a digital twin of a wave overtopping to build a deployable coastal warning tool that predicts wave hazards. It is expected to establish a method to analyze coastal wave fields from Earth observations alongside unique measurements of wave overtopping. This enables researchers to better understand how processes such as wind, tides, coastal sheltering and swells interact across an area to change the coastal wave hazard. The project will also use projections to assess future changes in wave hazard frequency. The ultimate aim is to transform weather and climate research and improve operational hazard management to increase UK resilience.
The TWINE program is part of a £200m (US$254m) portfolio of 17 Earth-observation investment package (EOIP) projects which were announced in November 2022. The aims of the TWINE program and the projects collectively are to: bring together environmental, observational and computational sciences teams to realize the value of digital twinning technology to address environmental challenges; improve the understanding, modeling and prediction of events, inform future decision-making, and test the impacts of different scenarios and interventions to help make better decisions on improving our environment; and build the foundations of a coherent and lasting landscape of digital twins for environmental science, with a high level of cross-fertilization of learning and a focus on design for interoperability with current and future activities.
Professor Peter Liss, interim executive chair of NERC, said, “Developing digital twins for environmental science is important to improve our ability to anticipate and respond to crises including in climate change, biodiversity and future weather events. These five projects will bring together multidisciplinary teams to realize the value of digital twinning technology. It is excellent to form a partnership with the Met Office to address this research challenge and ensure that the UK reaches its potential in this area.”
Professor Stephen Belcher, Met Office chief scientist, said, “Our Earth and global communities are facing a multitude of challenges from increasing climate change impacts, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline and threats from natural disasters. The rapidly emerging technology of digital twins is developing at just the right time, and in partnership with the Met Office, these projects will help society understand how these threats interact and how best to mitigate them.”
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