ERDC uses digital twin technology to recreate damaged Air Force base

Published 12:38 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) has partnered with Tyndall Air Force Base to complete a multibillion-dollar reconstruction project, and with the help of the Research and Development Environment (RDE) network and digital twin technology, Tyndall is on its way to being the country’s most advanced military installation to date — an Installation of the Future.

When Hurricane Michael came ashore in 2018, 60 percent of the base was destroyed, and leadership faced a looming question of what to do next. The decision was made to not just rebuild, but to build back smarter and fully capable to take on the 21st century.

Tyndall partnered with the ERDC to place Senior Scientific Technical Manager Lance Marrano on-site to serve as a science and technology advisor and assist with navigating technological innovations during the reconstruction process. Marrano also serves as a lead researcher for Installations of the Future, a Department of Defense initiative focused on sustainability, technology and adaptability.

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After hearing from Tyndall’s leadership, Marrano decided that a digital twin of the base — a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people and places — was needed.

“In as realistic and virtual a world as possible, digital twin technology is about recreating the base, the buildings, the roads, the runways, the utilities, and saying ‘now what questions does that enable us to answer?’” Marrano said.

With digital twin technology, users are able to virtually step inside the base and experience construction plans first-hand. Being able to “walk through” areas of new construction gives users the opportunity to offer feedback and make changes before actual construction begins.

“Some people have no idea if their drawings are going to work for their mission because they aren’t used to looking at blueprints,” Marrano said. “Right now, we can physically go through the door and walk through the rooms of the existing buildings. We are able to take them through their buildings and receive immediate feedback which will save thousands of dollars in changes down the road.

“As we input new designs from the architect, we can attach them to the construction schedule enabling us to see what the base will look like six months, one year and at the end of reconstruction,” he continued. “That is a benefit in and of itself.”

Though it may take several years until Tyndall Air Force Base is finished, Marrano and his team are focusing on quick turnaround times for their part.

“After an architect submits a building design for review, we are trying to have a one-day turnaround to input that information into the digital twin,” Marrano said. “It is about being agile. We built this so that anyone can literally pull up the file, push a button and update the digital twin.”

Marrano said that building a digital twin of Tyndall would not have been possible without the Defense Research and Engineering Network connection and the RDE services, and he credits the team and computer experts for being responsive at all hours of the night.

“Creation of a digital twin requires a significant amount of subject-matter expertise in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics,” said Dr. David Horner, director of ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory. “Our laboratory is uniquely positioned to meet this need. Great things lie ahead.”

ERDC is not only making an impact at Tyndall — the entire Air Force is benefitting from the effort. These advancements will also enable the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enhance the delivery of facilities to Army customers as well. The ERDC’s Construction Engineering and Research Laboratory, Environmental Laboratory and Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL) are all using digital twin technology to expand their research.

Upcoming enhancements include the ability to visualize flooding and storm surge using CHL’s hurricane models to better identify and prepare vulnerable facilities. This is all made possible by ERDC’s Hololab, which opened in March 2022 and serves as a portal for exploring everything from planning and design to security vulnerabilities. With the advanced capabilities of the RDE, remote accessibility is also a possibility.

When asked why digital twin technology is so important for the future, Marrano further proved that ERDC is in the business of solving the nation’s most challenging problems.

“Right now, we have security forces using our digital twin technology to virtually prepare for active shooter situations,” he said. “We presented this technology to the leaders of an elementary school here and showed them how they can train and be better prepared. It’s more than how our engineers use the digital twin — everyone can use this as a virtual canvas to train, plan and prepare.”