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The opportunity and challenge of building a Planetary Digital Twin

5 min.

Prototyping and modelling are very much the norm among innovators and advanced manufacturers, as they offer extensive testing and refinement opportunities, vital when fiddling with novel, high impact technologies. But what if modelling could help humanity better understand Earth’s complex ecosystem and the different components at play? Introducing “Digital Earth”: concept, next steps, and opportunities.

More than twenty years ago, U.S. Vice-President Al Gore articulated a vision of “Digital Earth” as a multi-resolution, three-dimensional representation of the planet that would make it possible to find, visualize, and make sense of vast amounts of geo-referenced information on the physical and social environment. Such a system would allow users to navigate through space and time, access to historical data as well as future predictions based, for example, on environmental models, and support access and use by scientists, policy-makers, and children alike. Half intriguing, half revealing, such musings (at the time, this vision seemed almost impossible given the requirements it implied about access to computer-processing cycles, broadband internet, interoperability of systems and, above all, data organisation, storage and retrieval) spoke not only of the unprecedented technological advancements brought forth by the space race but, most importantly, of their yet unexplored potential.

Fast forward, as today’s users are benefiting from innovative ways to organise and present data and from rapid advancements in hardware, software, and data capture and processing, developing a “Digital Earth” would, among other things, enable the wider community to share into and take advantage of the abundance of data generated by e.g. the Copernicus programme. To this end, the ‘Destination Earth’ initiative will bring together European scientific and industrial excellence to develop a very high precision digital model of the Earth, a platform that will enable the visualization, monitoring and forecasting of natural and human activity on the planet in support of sustainable development, thus supporting Europe’s efforts for a better environment as set out in the Green Deal. This digital twin of the Earth will be constructed progressively, starting in 2021.

In practice, over the course of the next years, the European Commission will:

  • Initiate a ‘GreenData4All’ initiative. This consists in evaluating and possibly reviewing the Directive establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the EU (INSPIRE), together with the Access to Environment Information Directive (Q4 2021 or Q1 2022). It will modernise the regime in line with technological and innovation opportunities, making it easier for EU public authorities, businesses and citizens to support the transition to a greener and carbon-neutral economy, and reducing administrative burden.
  • Roll out re-usable data-services on a large scale to assist in collecting, sharing, processing and analysing large volumes of data relevant for assuring compliance with environmental legislation and rules related to the priority actions set in the Green Deal (Q4 2021).
  • Establish a common European data space for smart circular applications making available the most relevant data for enabling circular value creation along supply chains. A particular focus will be concentrated at the outset on the sectors targeted by the Circular Economy Action Plan, such as the built environment, packaging, textiles, electronics, ICT and plastics. Digital ‘product passports’ will be developed, that will provide information on a product’s origin, durability, composition, reuse, repair and dismantling possibilities, and end-of-life handling. Development of architecture and governance (2020), sectoral data strategies (2021), adoption of a sustainable product policy with product passport (2021) and resource mapping and waste shipments tracking (2021).
  • Initiate a pilot for early implementation of the data strategy in the context of the ‘zero pollution ambition’ to harvest the potential of an already data-rich policy domain with data on chemicals, air, water and soil emission, hazardous substances in consumer products, etc. which is underexploited and where early results can benefit consumers and the Planet directly (Q4 2021).
  • Launch the ‘Destination Earth’ initiative.

Taking these steps, the EU aims to become the most attractive, most secure, and most dynamic data-agile economy in the world – empowering Europe with data to improve decisions and better the lives of all of its citizens.

Focusing in on Earth Observation, as clarified by Ms Cécile Huet, Deputy Head of Unit Robotics & Artificial Intelligence, during the Copernicus & Artificial Intelligence event in Brussels, 28 January 2020, Copernicus and AI are expected to become ever more intertwined as the Member States and the Commission seek to develop integrated Earth Observation and AI machine learning solutions to support i) evidence-based policy making, ii) implementation and monitoring in areas such as climate change, iii) environmental protection, iv) agriculture, v) urban development, vi) disaster response, vii) migration, and viii) infrastructure monitoring. Consequently, the envisaged Digital Twin of Planet Earth is expected to be dynamic, interactive, compute and dataintensive enabling:

  • the continuous monitoring of the health of the planet
  • high precision simulations
  • improved modelling and predictive capacities
  • EU policy making and implementation

To begin with, a number of digital twins will be developed to support main policy priorities (link and merge over time), e.g.:

  • Climate Change (polar, sea-level, marine, coastal…)
  • Environment (biodiversity, circular economy, env. crimes)
  • Civil Protection (natural disasters, extreme events…)
  • Urban Areas (mobility, spatial planning, air pollution…)

In this context, the work to be undertaken by e-shape’s pilots grows all the more relevant. To name a few, Pilot 3.2 is producing GIS tools to determine the most productive locations for PV installations within city limits . Pilot 5.2 seeks to better understand, monitor, and predict extreme weather events for the benefit of potentially vulnerable communities. Pilot 6.4 uses machine learning in manipulating different types of data (agronomic, meteorological) to better equip the agricultural sector against potential disasters. Pilot 7.2 focuses in on the sponge city concept and the atmospheric phenomena that affect safety in and around cities. Through these and many other of its pilots (full list and objectives available here), e-shape will be contributing its share in the realisation of the Earth’s Digital Twin! So, as targeted funding opportunities are expected to be rolled out in the above-mentioned areas, do make sure to stay in the loop and get ready for your next challenge!