Posted 19 January 2023 in Blog, Data, Space.

By creating a complete digital simulation of any system, it is possible to predict the results of any actions taken to change it. This ‘digital twin’ concept is already used in sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare and cybersecurity. Now it is set to revolutionize how we forecast and manage the future of our planet, on local, national and global scales.

On 1 January 2021, the European Commission (EC) launched an ambitious programme to create a high precision digital model of the Earth, called Destination Earth, or DestinE. This ‘digital twin’ will enable policymakers and other stakeholders to monitor environmental changes and human impact on the Earth, and make reliable predictions that can be used to support sustainable development.

The potential benefits of this major initiative are huge. DestinE will link together vast amounts of geospatial and socio-economic data and make it widely accessible, supporting the EC’s planned green and digital transitions by enabling evidence-based policy decisions. It will contribute to the European Green Deal by allowing policymakers to see the impact of climate change on many areas and how these could be managed and modified. And it will support innovation in critical infrastructure and industry.

How will DestinE be used?

One of the many use cases already identified for a digital twin Earth is the forecasting and mitigation of environmental disasters, and of the resulting socio-economic crises. This could help to save lives and reduce large economic downturns. The EC also proposes that it will support Europe’s efforts to become climate neutral by 2050, help tackle climate change, enable ambitious alternative energy projects and aid the agriculture sector, particularly with responses to extreme weather.

Importantly, DestinE will be made available for anyone to use, including the public. With the right interfaces and models, it could be used by businesses of any size to understand how they will be impacted by climate change and to investigate the effects of any interventions they might make. It would also be usable by schools and individuals, ensuring everyone understands the role they can play in tackling climate change.

When will DestinE be ready?

DestinE will be developed over the next 7 years under the Digital Europe and Horizon Europe programmes, with input from major institutions including the European Space Agency (ESA), European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts and European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). Initial services should be available as early as 2024.

Putting the pieces together

Predicting future scenarios is only possible when there is sufficient historic data to provide evidence of changes and trends. For many variables, there is more than 40 years of data, thanks to Earth observation satellites and in situ measurements – all of which needs to be combined to create the digital twin Earth.

However, creating a digital twin requires more than identifying and collecting all possible related data, and making it available to stakeholders:

  • Data must be collected in a continuous way, providing a data stream.
  • Instead of using a physical or process-based model, we need to use a data-driven model to enable the artificial intelligence to ‘learn’.
  • Observable changes need to be measured and fed back into the data model, to enable continuous simulation in a virtual cycle.

Also, because the Earth ‘system’ is made up of subsystems and sub-subsystems, data about each of these has to be collected in a consistent way.

A challenging endeavour

DestinE will be built with a shared horizontal layer that includes computer processing, data, software and infrastructure, plus some vertical applications in selected thematic areas that have been identified as priority policy use cases. The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission identified 30 such use cases, including cities, harbours and transportation. A further project is now underway to select and implement initial use cases for development and integration.

Enabling users to access data from multiple sources presents technical challenges. International standards organizations are already looking at the issue of digital twins, because any open and interoperable reference framework needs to use international standards, and to match the principles enshrined in relevant European legal acts.

Data and models will be accessible on the cloud in order to remove limitations presented by local processing power and storage. However, work remains to be done to interconnect the different cloud systems involved. Nevertheless, with DestinE, the EC is aiming to offer some DestinE services by 2024 based on separate digital twins focusing on individual areas including weather-induced and geophysical extremes, and climate change adaptation. The whole programme, with a single, integrated digital twin Earth, should be complete by the end of the decade.

Find out more

This post is based on an article originally published in RHEA’s OpenSpace 29 magazine. To read the complete article, subscribe to OpenSpace now.

You can also find out more about DestinE at https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/destination-earth