Main content

New services are automating world-scale digital twins - here's how

George Lawton Profile picture for user George Lawton February 24, 2023
Casting an eye over the latest moves from Maxar and ESRI.


Constructing digital twins of the real world has traditionally been a one-off project in which GIS specialists and surveyors slice and dice 2D data from different sources for planning, logistics, and managing large-scale operations. Now satellite imagery provider Maxar and GIS giant ESRI are rolling out new tools to automate this process.  

Ten years ago, Dan Nord was at Electronic Arts working on the game SimCity that allowed players to predict the impact of different police station placements in a virtual world. Today, he is Senior VP and GM of Enterprise Earth Intelligence at Maxar, where he creates apps that help mobile companies predict the coverage of different cell tower placements in the real world.

This month, Maxar, the world’s largest satellite imagery vendor, is rolling out a new service in conjunction with Blackshark to create world-scale digital twins that can be played, explored, and simulated in the Epic Unreal gaming engine.

Moreover, these new worlds can be updated daily to assess the impact of natural disasters, vegetation growth, conflict, and construction. The new service will provide new ways to explore Maxar’s more than 125 petabytes of visual, infrared, and radar data from the last three decades.

Nord says that this offering is geo-typical rather than an exact replication. This leads to a smoother user experience but needs to be combined with other analytics tools for precise analysis:

When you get into simulation, gaming, or anything involving the human eye, we’d like it to look good. So it’s better to guess where that window is and make it look good from the ground. And that’s the synthetic portion of Black Shark. So it creates a seamless view of the Earth with natural color and visual clarity. But it’s what we call geo-typical, meaning it’s typical of this type of building to look like this, versus geospecific, which is actually what it looks like in real life.

ESRI’s new service combines aerial imagery and GIS mapping data into site, city, and country-scale 3D digital twins. ESRI also partners with Unreal and Unity to deliver a smooth 3D user experience. Vodaphone is already using the ESRI tech for a 3D digital twin for Great Britain, representing 245,000 square kilometers, to provide a far more granular understanding of their mobile network than was possible previously. This also helps engineers conduct virtual site visits to save time and reduce CO2. 

A hook for enterprise digital twins

Maxar already provided analytics tools for analyzing 2D satellite imagery. But realistic 3D worlds might help inspire executives and front-line employees to adopt these tools and explore new use cases for simulation and exploration. In the book Never Lost Again, Bill Killday describes how Google Earth took off once people discovered they could zoom into their neighborhoods:  

The satellite imagery was a great marketing hook for Google Maps. This imagery generated interest and brought in new users, and those new users ended up sticking around because the Google Maps product was so superior to the competition.

Support for 3D simulations could have a similar impact on digital twins, according to Nord: 

What gets the attention is when you drop into a VR world, and it’s your actual hometown, and you’re walking around past your house and the coffee shop you went to. Those are the experiences that get people to believe that we’re there.

Once people are hooked on exploring their own cities, they will start to think about exploring their business operations and supply chains, he reckons: 

I truly believe the big opportunity is in business simulation for decision making. The consumer side, like games and Hollywood, gets a lot of attention because it’s usually where technologies break out. But one of the coolest things is we’re going to get to do Monte Carlo simulation for hard problems in 3D space instead of just in Excel. 

But just building a 3D version of the world isn’t enough. You have to be able to pull data out of it and understand it. You want to know how many cars are where and how cities are growing. Once you can understand the world, you can start making better decisions… You can start answering really hard problems at a global scale about supply chains and insurance.

My take

There are two things to watch here. First, the game engine aspect will inspire adoption. Second, these new platforms will lower the barriers to developing new businesses and services on top of digital twin platforms, much like Google maps enabled Uber and Airbnb. 

The idea of digital twins has been around for almost a decade. But most capabilities were buried behind complex tools with lackluster user experiences. The differences in user experience between game engines and 3D engineering and design tools have been stark. Partnerships with the game development engines will excite the imagination and encourage exploration. In the short run, game developers will find new ways to simplify the user experience to make it easier for workers to get the most value from these tools. 

Initially, this will make it easier to work with existing analytics tools for analyzing GIS data and satellite imagery for new use cases. Down the road, it will improve other kinds of workflows as well. 

These new world-scale digital twin platforms will enable developers with specific industry expertise or a great idea to quickly develop a new idea at low risk. For example, enterprises might use live satellite data to automatically quantify and update information about their carbon footprint or develop tools to comply with the new EU ban on deforestation-linked goods.

A grey colored placeholder image