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The Role of Drones & Digital Twins in Engineering & Construction

Digital Twin Visualization

When you Google ‘what is a digital twin?’ you get 570,000,000 results. With many articles conflicting with each other it can be difficult to know what to believe and if, or how a digital twin can help you and your business.

Digital twins are used in many different industries, from product design to aerospace, to provide a stable model for planning, analysis and simulation of an object or built environment. ‘Isn’t that the same as BIM software?’ you may well ask. Confusingly similar as it may be, no, it’s not.

In our latest article we look to answer the biggest questions about creating digital twins, their scope and how you leverage the power of the digital twin for AEC.

What is a Digital Twin?

Despite sounding like something sinister from the latest trending series on Netflix, in principle, digital twins aren’t anything new. They are, to put it simply, a 3D digital model of something physical down to the last detail. What makes digital twins new and exciting is their ability to use real-time data to evolve and update.

Digital twins are the visual culmination of those big buzz-phrases of 2010 – IoT and Big Data. They can be fed from multiple sources and change in real time.

Where 3D modelling has been traditionally used to visualize work in progress, it’s now also being seen as the best way to monitor and maintain existing structures. Creating a digital twin of a subject allows you to simulate scenarios, detect change, monitor progress and inspect details in a real-world context including all its inherent issues and flaws.

Digital Twin | Hammer Missions
3D Digital Twin (Left), Real Asset (Right) | Hammer Missions

What are the benefits of a digital twin?

Digital twins are a visual manifestation of different strings of data. Without them multiple teams would all be dealing with different parts of the puzzle. It would be like sharing a jigsaw out among your friends and never getting together to piece it into a whole.

The symbiotic relationship between a digital twin and its real-world counterpart is achieved by having multiple data streams all feeding into the same model. They can be built using data from cameras, remote sensors, scanners - anything which collects and stores information. But they don’t always have to be that complicated. The most obvious, perhaps simplistic benefit, is the visual simulation element. Building a digital twin of an asset allows you to turn it upside down, demolish it, flood it, rebuild it, paint it, squash it, all to see what impact it has on other systems and the environment around it.

Traditional processes would usually mean manually updating 2D models which wastes hours of valuable time and full visibility of the project is still limited. The digital real-time nature of a digital twin means that all stakeholders are seeing the same thing and dealing with the same data. No more waiting for someone to update the 2D drawings or pass on the latest survey report. Everyone can view the changes as they happen. This can save hours of wasted time and speed up the decision-making process with less room for miscommunication.

Digital twins are also a safer way to manage sites and buildings. Remote survey data can be fed into the digital model without the need for onsite inspections. Drones can be used to automatically update even the most basic model quickly and regularly.

All of the above saves time, which is, as the old adage goes - money. So, if your ultimate goal is to save time, money and make life safer for your team, creating a digital twin should probably be on next year’s plan.

It can sound like a massive undertaking and as with all digital assets – the results are only as good as the data provided in the first place. So, how do you start creating a digital twin?

How to Get Started Using Digital Twins

The bigger picture for the digital twin is that it can be turned into a living and ‘breathing’ thing. An active model which is directly linked to its physical counterpart. They can be fed by multiple sources and learn to automatically update themselves when a change from a data source is detected. Depending on how sophisticated your data strategy is this can seem like a daunting prospect.

Defining your project’s scope will be key to incorporating digital twins into your long-term business strategy, but getting started can be relatively straightforward and scalable, starting with the collection of physical, visible data – i.e photographs.

BIM Digital Twin Visualization

Creating a Digital Twin

Photogrammetry has long been used as a method for creating 3D models for surveys, asset management and construction projects. In the last decade, drones have increased the speed and accuracy of photogrammetric data collection which has lowered the cost of creating digital twins dramatically.

Whether you have an in-house UAV team or work with a drone service provider, drones are by far the fastest and most accurate way to collect the data needed to create a digital twin. They are also the safest. Whether you are modelling a construction site, heritage building or manufacturing facility, a drone will deliver high quality data quickly and without the need to send personnel into hazardous areas.

Once your drone operator has captured the required imagery the processing workflow is simple. This article explains more.

FPV drone flight

Using Drones to Create a Digital Twin

The scope for enhanced business intelligence from a digital twin is almost limitless and the bigger picture is building a model which is continually updated from multiple data streams all talking to one another.

This is one of the reasons why having your own drone programme can have huge benefits. Having the ability to constantly ‘feed’ your digital twin with up-to-date information can mean that you can monitor changes and even automate your responses in advance.

Precision is key to this process. By automating your data capture you can make sure that any data being fed into your digital twin is consistent so that all stakeholders are using up-to-date and accurate information. Automated flight planning software means that the collected data is true and consistent every time. Automated flight planning also helps you to easily repeat the flights which helps in collecting the same data over and over again - essentially helping you build a 4D digital twin of your asset or site]

Keeping a digital twin constantly fed can become a costly exercise if you’re outsourcing your drone services. Our Guide to Enterprise Drone Programmes explains more about setting up a drone strategy within your business.

ruined building render

Why do digital twins matter in AEC?

AEC environments are often ones of rapid change, they are also usually hazardous. Creating a digital twin with a drone removes human intervention from some of the most dangerous processes associated with architecture, engineering and construction. Site surveys and at height inspections can be conducted safety and viewed virtually.

Once the data has been captured remotely it also makes it easier to collaborate on projects. Multiple stakeholders and teams can use the same digital model to view the data most relevant to them. When the model is updated there’s no waiting for manual updates to be made by the commissioning team – it is all automated.

The value of digital twins to the AEC industries lies not only in the modelling of new constructions, but also the development and future use of existing structures or sites. As buildings and landscapes are being developed digital twins can provide a crucial opportunity to simulate all the ‘what-ifs’.

They can also play a big part in identifying sustainability and environmental issues. Sensors can be incorporated to read and monitor emissions and water levels which can then be used to model future scenarios and the impact on the existing, or physical twin.

BIM model render of utilities

Are BIM and a digital twin the same thing?

Creating, managing and monitoring built assets is one of the most popular use cases for the digital twin. In theory, the two concepts can sound like the same thing. Collaborative visualization tools to help plan, manage and monitor the lifecycle of a building. To try and simplify a complex distinction: BIM software is used to create a passive model of a built asset at design stage through to construction. A digital twin is an active representation of an asset, continually updated with real-time data as it evolves in real life. Digital twins are becoming a key part of the BIM process and there’s a theory that the digital twin will eventually supersede BIM software. To do that AEC businesses will have to embrace and adopt real-time connectivity into all aspects of the built asset lifecycle.


See? Digital twins aren’t so scary after all! The scope for the digital twin is limitless, but how far you go with it is up to you. Creating a meaningful digital twin should be part of a wider data strategy, but it can start with something as simple as a drone survey.

Hammer Missions is a software platform that helps drone (UAV) teams work with versatile & high-quality drone data for site surveys and asset inspections. Our goal is to help businesses cut costs and increase ROI by building operational efficiency in their drone programs.

Hammer Hub is a cloud-based platform where drone data can be processed and visualized in a full 3D environment. This data can also be annotated using AI to accelerate the annotation process, and it can then be shared with other team members or stakeholders within the organization for further review – a great benefit when working with a digital twin.

If you haven't got a Hammer account yet and would like to try Hammer Missions you can get started with our free trial.

To find out more about using drone data for BIM and digital twins, please contact our team or visit our learning resources or take a look at our project examples.

- Team at Hammer Missions

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