Digital twins in airports: How a 3D visualisation can improve baggage handling operations

Imagine having a great allocation idea for your baggage handling system (BHS) and being able to test it on a 3D digital model to see if it would work in the real world. Digital twins make this entirely possible!

It’s not hard to see why digital twins are becoming an imperative for businesses and why many airports and other industries are adopting this technology. Having digital copies of systems gives airports the ability to make decisions within a data model, analyse the outcomes and optimise the results - all by using the system layout (the digital twin) as a storyteller.

The digital twin explained 

But what is a digital twin, precisely?

Put simply, a digital twin is a digital replica or a digital overlay of a physical asset or operation. This digital representation or virtual model replicates the asset’s performance, allowing the creator of the digital twin to determine where the asset — whether it’s a jet engine, a turbine, a vehicle or a BHS — performs well and where it can be further improved. 

Real life divert

Think of Google Maps in which you can find a specific road and its traffic intensity. This is a digital representation of an actual road and the traffic intensity it is experiencing in real time. You could say that it’s a digital twin of the road.

Digital twin divert

In the same way, a digital representation can be created of the airport BHS to gain a full overview and understanding of how the actual system and processes look and function in the physical world. Replicating operations in a digital environment means that BHS operators have greater capacity for optimisation, detection of system anomalies and predictive maintenance. 

In the future, these digital assets will be as important as the physical assets.

The infrastructure needed for a digital twin

A digital twin is a combination of two components: data and a representation of the given system. The representation can be two or three dimensional, depending on the solution provider. 

The data adds a visual layer on top of the representation to make information relatable for the staff operating the system. These layers, lifted from the data, could consist of information telling the temperature, vibrations, power consumption, mechanical and electrical status and system throughput. An extremely valuable feature of the digital twin is that it can be observed through various filters. BHS professionals could observe the entirety of the baggage handling system while only focusing on power consumption, for example. 

It may sound similar to SCADA (the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system), but the digital twin offers a much more advanced level of information and perspective. 

SCADA and the digital twin:
What’s the difference? 

SCADA (the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) is a system of software and hardware elements that allows operators to control and maintain efficiency through images of the current status of a system. By contrast, the digital twin can depict the past, present and future of the system. It’s a faster and more efficient way to gather information than observing the physical system.

 

Collecting and analysing the data 

Digital twins use both historical and real-time data collected from various sources within the physical system. 

In the airport environment, the data is gathered using intelligent sensors and camera technology systematically placed along the BHS to build information repositories. Raw data is collected from the system – such as temperature, vibrations, power consumption, processing speed, alarms, events and more – SCADA and IoT platforms. 

The data that is collected on-premise at the airport is securely live streamed to a data warehouse. From here, it is enriched, through the skills and knowhow of the BHS provider, and run though highly advanced visualisation software.

Digital twin in baggage handling

Increasingly, data analytics, machine learning and predictive analytics tools are being used to reveal patterns about system performance in specific situations, enabling predictions on both operational and equipment levels to optimise the system. The information captured within the platform is never lost and available for the next upgrade or simulation. 

The data collected through these modelling tools creates the digital representation of the system and its parts. The result is a digital twin – a version of the baggage handling system recreated in 3D.

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The benefits of a digital twin

By building a digital twin, BHS professionals are able to gain a virtual understanding of their physical systems that can lead to numerous system optimisations. 

These benefits are what makes a digital twin so effective:

Forecast scenarios: The digital twin acts as a mirror of its physical equivalent, enabling simulations to ensure system performance and optimisation. (That allocation idea, referred to above, can be put to the test in the virtual replica of the BHS, for example.) Management has at its fingertips a real way to investigate future production and optimising scenarios, and watch its strategies play out on the screen. 

Improved operations: Baggage flows can be analysed and optimised in real time. The twin can reveal recirculating bags, manual encoding bags, mishandled bags and bottlenecks to provide deeper understanding of how the flow and processes can be changed, improved and optimised. 

Predictive maintenance: A digital representation of the BHS can also predict possible future problems within the system and highlight potential issues before they become a problem. The digital twin will show specific elements of the system needing attention, directing the focus of maintenance staff and saving time. And ultimately, reducing overall system downtime. 

Complete visibility:  The digital twin technology accurately replicates the real-life system in 3D and dynamically, allowing it to be viewed both locally and remotely to ensure critical operational decisions are made in real time. It offers a detailed real-time view of what is happening across the physical system. It can tell the operator how the BHS is operating and how it is processing the baggage, providing transparency throughout the entire system. 

Improved decision making: By providing system visibility, the digital twin can facilitate better decision making. It has the potential to prevent siloed, slow or delayed and reactive decisions. It enables collaboration across all stakeholders as it provides a holistic system view and approach.

Conclusion

While the concept of a ‘digital twin’ has a very futuristic ring to it, it is in fact fast becoming a very real solution for today's baggage handling system operation. Many industries, including airports, are adapting the technology to their existing systems, finding its predictive virtual simulation capabilities provide significant benefits for operational visibility. The digital twin can become a ‘single source of truth’ for the airport’s operations and asset monitoring and control, providing contextualisation and business intelligence. Having the freedom to gain insights by simulating multiple different strategies without having to spend a penny or run the risk of choosing an inefficient strategy, has to be a business imperative for any airport today.

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