In the joint use industry, confusion and uncertainty are the arch enemies of cooperation. They cause delays in permit approvals and construction, inefficiencies in procedures, and hard feelings among joint use partners. The potential for confusion grows as 5G technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the continuing expansion of fiber networks drive big increases in the number of joint use interactions and the number of new players involved. One of the main causes of confusion and uncertainty is inaccurate, incomplete, disorganized, and outdated data.
It’s important for everybody involved in making joint use decisions to have a clear picture of what equipment is out in the field as well as its condition. Fortunately, technologies are available to form that crucial picture of the assets shared by joint use partners. Many companies these days are turning to the digital twin concept to meet current needs and better position themselves for the future.
A digital twin is a virtual copy of a physical asset or a virtual representation of an intangible process. This replica can take various forms, from an organized data set to a three-dimensional photographic version of the objects involved. As a digital twin tutorial, we’re going to look at twinning one of the most important assets in all of joint use: the utility pole.
Collecting the Data
When building a digital twin, good data is the foundation. Let’s say we send a technician into the field armed with a handheld device that combines measurement with photography, a technology known as photogrammetry. Software loaded onto the device ensures the technician captures all the necessary information about on the pole, its surroundings, and any equipment attached to it, from fiber-optic cables to distributed antenna systems (DAS) and small cell units.
Our goal in this example is to use the data collected to construct a three-dimensional photographic representation of the pole, complete with measurements. We need to know the height and circumference of the pole and the distances between ground level, each attachment of cables or antenna equipment, and the distribution lines at the top of the pole. While we’re at it, let’s find out how close the pole is to any nearby trees or buildings. Sensors in the device will record all the necessary measurements. The technician can also manually record information from the pole stamp, such as the age of the pole.
With a compatible system, the data can be transferred directly from the field to the data management software back at the office.
Building a Twin
In the back office, analysts use software to organize the data and begin building the digital twin. All the individual photos and measurements taken in the field can be stitched together digitally to produce a detailed, three-dimensional, measurable photo representation of the pole.
Once created, the digital twin can be manipulated and modified using additional data, accessed by various departments through a digital twin platform, and shared with contractors and other joint use partners. It also can be joined with comparable data on other poles to create a twin of a whole group or network of assets.
The Digital Twin at Work
Why is a digital twin so helpful in joint use management? It makes accurate information available to everyone involved in the process of attachment requests and approval.
Let’s say a company wants to place small cell equipment on several poles within a certain area to densify its network. A digital twin of the infrastructure in that area enables the company to examine one pole after another, identifying those that have the most space remaining for additional attachments. This information allows the company to be more strategic with its attachment requests and reduces the likelihood that the asset owner will reject the requests and delay the deployment. The digital twin’s detailed measurements also help the attaching company ensure its network will be dense enough to meet its needs.
For the asset owner, the digital twin contains enough information for a reliable load analysis on each pole. Assessing the condition of a pole, and the load it’s already carrying, enables asset owners to calculate how much additional weight the pole can bear without compromising its stability. The decision to grant an application for attachment can be made with confidence.
Even better, the company could conduct the load analysis and add it to the data record before applications for attachment are received, further speeding the approval process.
The digital twin allows the asset owner, attaching company, and contractors to see what make-ready work will be necessary before a new attachment can be installed on the pole, reducing the number of trips to the site that are necessary to get the work done properly.
Finally, digital twins are useful for joint use and other purposes because they give companies a chance to simulate any number of changes to predict the likely effects on individual assets and the overall plant.
Into the Future
A digital twin is a flexible tool that can grow more sophisticated as technology evolves.
Any business not driven by data is already behind, and a digital twin is an excellent medium for putting data to work. The example explored here illustrates just one type of digital twin and the ways it could benefit the joint use community. Digital twins can be constructed in different ways for different purposes and can represent any kind of asset, such as a substation, a conduit vault, or stand-alone communications equipment.
The key to creating an effective digital twin is good, comprehensive, well-managed data. Alden is ready to help with each step of the process. We have expertise in data collection, and our field app, Task Agent™, works on handheld image capture devices, as well as smartphones. Alden’s asset management platform for joint use, Alden One®, uses automated workflows to streamline data management and sharing, billing, and creating reports for internal use, as well as for regulatory agencies.
The Alden advantage doesn’t stop at our software. Alden Systems also offers friendly, helpful business support services that can help you get the most out of your data. If you’re interested in learning more about Alden’s products and services, contact a specialist.