‘Digital twins’ manage the airport and hospitals. Are people next?

Researchers aim to create fully realized digital representations of human beings

San Francisco is living a double life, where taxpayer dollars are saved, disasters are averted, massive structures are built and lives are saved.

Digital twins” are highly detailed three-dimensional models run by computer programs that are being used to help run hospital buildings and parts of the airport, and to replicate the human heart, putting San Francisco at the forefront of the technology, experts say. All the data available about a real-world building or vehicle is entered into a computer program that replicates the original in three dimensions on a screen.

Here’s what that looks like in real life: Officials at UCSF have used data-rich, dynamic virtual replicas of buildings to monitor temperature, air flow, even the maintenance and location of hospital beds. Clicking into the model can even allow officials to adjust and control some operations, like air and water systems.

“It’s something we’re passionate about,” says Bruce Mace, executive director of UCSF Health’s facilities and support services department, noting that maintenance of air circulation systems and other operations in hospitals has been crucial during COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, a fire alarm went off in a full COVID-19 ward at the UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus Avenue near Golden Gate Park. There was no fire, and emergency response was cancelled, but there was another hazard that could have serious consequences. The fire alarm system automatically triggered changes in the air circulation system. Were fans blowing air from the COVID ward into other areas? Sending in work crews to assess that would have put people at risk, and disrupted the ward.

At UCSF medical centers, digital twins are used to monitor systems and help fix issues such as a major leak pouring into a cafeteria. (UCSF Health)

At UCSF medical centers, digital twins are used to monitor systems and help fix issues such as a major leak pouring into a cafeteria. (UCSF Health)

Consulting the digital twin allowed Mace and his team to look deeply into the system and ensure the air flow was safe. “We were able to control the situation remotely, and safely,” he says.

Digital twin data about UCSF’s Mission Bay facility and parts of the Parnassus campus is so detailed that officials can predict maintenance issues and even order new parts for machinery from within the 3-D model.

This is not a fad or flashy tech for the sake of innovation, believers say. The “metaverse” notion of avatars having adventures fills public relations pitches and movie plots. But digital twins provide very real services. The dynamic, three-dimensional models allow designers, architects, engineers and facilities teams to share one vision of a project and work on it together.

Here’s how digital twins are different from technology used in the past: Previously, simulations often used models to research one particular scenario, then they were discarded or used again sporadically. Digital twin technology, made by big tech companies including IBM and Autodesk, both used by UCSF, creates models that change with their real-life counterparts, as data is continually added.

Here’s another massive example of a local digital twin that San Francisco taxpayers may appreciate. San Francisco International Airport has completed a six-year renovation project with architects and engineers relying heavily on a dynamic three-dimensional model that stakeholders shared and added to. That digital twin provided a “single source of truth” for all of them, says Geoff Neumayr, chief development officer for planning, design and construction at SFO.

SFO used a digital twin of the airport to complete a massive, six-year renovation project. This model was shared by architects, engineers and contractors as “one source of truth” of the plans. (San Francisco International Airport)

SFO used a digital twin of the airport to complete a massive, six-year renovation project. This model was shared by architects, engineers and contractors as “one source of truth” of the plans. (San Francisco International Airport)

“We just finished a $7.3 billion project,” Neumayr says. “We made all our schedules, all our budgets, and we’re not in court with any of the parties.”

Could that have happened without a digital twin that all those parties could consult?

“No way,” he says. In the past, “We couldn’t see the coordination of all the industries. We had to do it in the field, by trial and error, with contractors bumping into each other.”

Having a three-dimensional model that stakeholders can click on to peel back walls, see details of a building, click to discover the cost of parts, and even control systems is a game-changer, says Terry Bills, global transportation industry director at Esri, a mapping software company that led the SFO project. “You can have a bunch of data on spreadsheets that are filed away, but when you pull it all together in a digital twin, it sits at the centerprice in the functioning of the airport.”

Digital twins of human hearts are even being built in Silicon Valley. NTT Research, the exploratory lab of the giant Japanese communications and technology company, is working on three-dimensional models of human hearts that reflect a person’s actual heart. That project could predict and prevent heart disease within a decade, the company says. That will be the first step in its “moonshot” to create fully realized digital representations of human beings for medical research. A virtual human twin of you and me. That vision is many years away.

For now, digital twins are tackling day-to-day, but serious, problems right here in San Francisco. One such case was a significant leak flowing down seven stories at UCSF’s Mission Bay facility into the facility’s cafeteria several years ago. “It was 11:45 on a Sunday night, there was water pouring into the kitchen, the ceiling was sagging,” says Mace, the executive director of UCSF’s facilities department. And worse, the leak was making an operating room unusable.

Mace and team members called up the digital twin from their homes, found the valve that could shut off the water, and did so with a click on the model. The leak was fixed in hours, not days. The operating room and cafeteria were back in business Monday morning.

Over the past two years, Mace has used the digital twin on video conference calls with multiple people in different countries to keep the hospital facilities running during a crucial time.

“During the pandemic we have constantly looked at the digital model” to predict maintenance issues, monitor temperature and air flow, and maintain equipment, Mace says. “All of these assets were suddenly paramount. Having this system is phenomenal.”

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