Earth Archive to use LiDAR to Create a “Digital Twin” of the Earth

26-05-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

A recent project called the Earth Archive Initiative aims to maps the entire planet in 3D and create a virtual twin of the Earth. What are digital twins, what will the project aim to do, and how does such a project help future generations?

What is a Digital Twin?

Recently, there has been talking of “Digital Twins” in many different sectors including industrial systems and aeronautics. A digital twin is simply a software representation of a physical device or process so that designers can simulate and verify designs. However, digital twins take the concept of the simulation even further and allow engineers to experiment with their system in any way they can think of. This enables a design to be tested thoroughly in a virtual environment without the need to construct anything.

The concept of a digital twin goes back to 2010 when NASA was developing simulation software to improve their rockets. A standard physics model of a rocket is great for determining maximum apogee, orbital speeds, and slingshot manoeuvres, but does very little for complex dynamic environments such as booster separation, atmospheric impacts, and mechanical stress. Data from real rocket launches can be fed into the digital twin to improve its performance (similar to AI learning), and in turn, the digital twin can be better used to simulate a real process.

The industrial sector has begun to explore the use of digital twins as digital twins do not require hardware. This enables digital twins to train operators using only a computer (of which can be remote), and the operator can do whatever they want to the system (i.e. play with the system). The best kind of learning is hands-on, and a digital twin allows for hands-on learning all in the safety of a simulation.

Earth Archive Initiative to Map the Earth

Digital twins have so far been limited to industrial processes and aeronautical applications, but a new project called the Earth Archive Initiative aims to change this. The goal of the project is to utilize LiDAR technology to create a 3D map of the Earth’s surface and create a digital twin of the Earth.  

LiDAR (which stands for Light Detection and Ranging), is a measurement technology that uses a laser beam to measure the distance between two points. Upon firing a laser, a timer is initiated, and when the laser beam hits a distant object and reflects back to the LiDAR, the reflected beam is detected which stops the timer. From there, the distance can be determined using the simple equation D = S x T.

The project also aims to make the resulting digital twin open-source and available to all, and the generated landscape will preserve the Earth’s surface map at the point of scanning. However, before the project can go ahead, the initiative plans to start by mapping the Amazon Basin to prove the system and focus on mapping an area that undergoes dramatic changes.

How is the creation of a digital twin of Earth beneficial?

By using LiDAR to create a digital twin of the Earth, the Earth’s landscape is effectively being frozen in time. Assuming that the digital information can be preserved indefinitely, future generations will have access to a solid piece of data on the Earth’s landscape. This data can be compared to the Earth’s future landscape which helps to improve human understanding in geology, meteorology, and socio-politically

The ability to map the Earth’s surface also helps with understanding the Earth’s past. Ancient cities often leave distinctive height markers that may not be visible from the ground or a satellite photo. As such, LiDAR technology (with its high degree of accuracy), can help to identify such ancient sites. The ability to accurately measure the topology of the Earth’s surface may also help to find meteor impact sites (which are often very hard to find as a result of Earth’s geological activity and life).

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.