Digital Twin Use Cases Demonstrate Benefit to the Utility Industry

Posted by Ashley Little on October 6, 2020

Damaged utility pole and transformer

As the technologies that can produce a detailed digital duplicate of a company’s physical assets are becoming more affordable, many large industries have been able to use them. The concept of a digital twin, or virtual copy, originated a few decades ago, but only in the past few years, widespread adoption has become practical. The global research firm Gartner estimated that half of large industrial companies will be using digital twins in 2021.

Of course, there are expenses associated with creating digital twins, and some headaches, but a variety of industries are finding the benefits outweigh initial burdens. These benefits include cost and time savings, data-driven improvements in predictive analysis, and reduction of risk to both physical assets and the general public.

What are some digital twin benefits specific to utilities? A previous article explores how a digital twin of a utility pole could be useful, but that’s not the only way the industry is getting on board with the trend. Here’s a look at some others.

Vegetation Management

A major, ongoing concern is preventing damage to power lines and other assets from trees and tree limbs. Fast-growing vines, such as kudzu, is a problem in some areas. For years, utilities have addressed this issue by in-person visual inspections of the lines and other infrastructure.

During severe weather, trees and tree limbs falling on power lines cause outages and create hazards. In areas plagued by drought, contact between vegetation and power equipment has been blamed for starting some immensely destructive wildfires. 

Digital twins have introduced new possibilities for vegetation management programs. The first step is data collection using technologies such as photogrammetry, which combines photography and sensors, or LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which uses ultra-high-speed pulses of laser light to measure distances. These technologies are available in handheld units, but also can be attached to a drone or fixed-wing aircraft, which can be particularly useful in surveying large areas.

Once data is collected, it's fed into software that assembles a virtual model (or digital twin) of the physical reality that was captured and measured. In the case of a photogrammetry device, dozens or even hundreds of measurable photo images can be stitched together to create 3D replicas of everything that was captured – including trees and other vegetation around the power lines. 

Vegetation grows differently in different places, depending on factors such as regional climate, annual rainfall, environmental features, and the species of trees and other plants in the area. Once a digital twin is created, it can be updated with new data collection to show any changes in both the infrastructure itself and the vegetation around it. Over time, these comparisons can be used to determine the varying growth rates of vegetation at any given point along a power line.

This ability to predict growth rates allows a company to create a more strategic, more efficient vegetation management program by targeting the spots where more frequent trimming is needed.

Structural Analysis & Storm Hardening

Another case in which a digital twin’s precise data and predictive capabilities can serve utilities well is in determining which poles are most vulnerable to extreme weather and setting priorities for replacement or reinforcement. Shoring up the utility plant to make it more weather-resistant is known as storm hardening.

Field data collection on poles and distribution lines typically includes photography, measurements, and recording of relevant observations and any information stamped on the pole. Along with the dimensions and height of the pole itself, the data includes the placement and dimensions of any equipment attached to it, such as cables, small cell, or DAS equipment. When the data is sufficient to create a digital twin of the pole, engineers can perform sophisticated analysis and put the digital twin through simulations to gauge how well it would hold up under various conditions.

With extreme weather events occurring more frequently in recent years, as noted by Utility Dive, some utilities have begun or fully implemented major storm hardening initiatives. 

Other Examples

Digital twins of utility assets are proving helpful in other ways:

  • Inventory – A digital twin creates an accurate, accessible record of a physical asset that may be used for many purposes. Any time a utility department needs to know the exact physical reality and configuration of the assets at a given location, whether they are power lines, poles, substations, underground vaults, a digital twin of those assets is a reusable, reliable, and time-saving resource.
  • Risk reduction – The more a company reduces the need for contact between technicians and potentially dangerous equipment, the lower the potential for accidental injuries and death. A digital twin of an asset such as a substation, built on 3D photogrammetry or LiDAR data collected using a drone, reduces the number of times workers must enter the site in person.
  • Joint use – A digital twin is handy for busy joint use officials issuing permits to companies that want to attach equipment to existing utility assets. The official can quickly determine whether a specific pole can safely bear the additional load, and reduce the chance that permits will be denied.

As the Internet of Things scatters its sensors throughout industries over the next few years, companies are likely to use “live,” or constantly updated, digital twins to monitor their assets in real-time.

Doing Data Right

The essential factor that transforms a digital twin from concept to reality is data. Successful digital data collection and analyses are easier if you’re using the best tools available, such as with our recent cooperative effort with Leica Geosystems. Alden’s flexible field app, Task Agent™, + Leica’s BLK3D imager provides a revolutionary tool for data collection.

Having the right software to manage data is crucial for operations. Alden One® is our nationally recognized asset management platform for joint use. Its automated features make data easy to organize, share, and put to work.  

 If you would like to know more about our software, click below or book a meeting with a product specialist.

Digital Twins Guide | Alden