How ‘digital twin’ technology can help fix potholes and improve traffic in South Africa

South Africa should look at growing technologies such as ‘digital twins’ to improve service delivery across the country’s municipalities, says Bonga Ntuli, director of the Infrastructure Business Unit at engineering consultancy Royal HaskoningDHV Southern Africa.

A ‘digital twin’ is a digital replica of physical assets, such as buildings or water pipe networks. By sharing data between the virtual and real-world environment; municipalities, city planners, and private companies can pre-empt issues through proactive maintenance, he said.

“This not only extends the life of our infrastructural assets but also prevents downtime and financial losses associated with unexpected breakdowns. More cities around the world — such as Singapore — are using this technology extensively.

“But this tech is not just for first world environments. It can be equally applied in developing countries such as South Africa where it can help our towns and cities get ahead with the infrastructure that they already have.”

Two practical ways in which it can help our towns and cities is with managing the country’s road and water infrastructures, said Ntuli.

Potholes and traffic

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With a digital twin of a city or town’s existing road network; decision-makers at municipal, provincial, and national level can use live data to identify where maintenance is needed and even predict where the formation of potholes typically occurs, said Ntuli.

A digital twin can further help towns and cities divert traffic for safety and efficiency reasons, and attend to physical hazards much faster, he said.

“Other practical interventions include testing variable speed limits and sharing information with GPS services to reroute traffic around temporary congestion points. All of this can help our towns and cities save money by managing their existing road infrastructure in a far better way.”

Burst water pipes and flow disruptions

“South Africa is already among the driest countries on earth, with rainfall far below the global average. Added to this, South Africa loses around 1.1 million litres of water every year due to leaky pipes and reservoirs, according to Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu,” said Ntuli.

He added that much of South Africa’s stormwater, water provision, and sewage infrastructure is decades old, and a lot of it is structurally compromised.

“The added challenge is that many municipalities don’t know where their pipelines are because records have been lost or are outdated.

“However, engineers can send sensors into a water pipe network to determine a pipe’s location, size and capacity. Engineers can then use this information to build an accurate digital twin of the existing system. This can help to predict and manage demand and pressure, implement just-in-time maintenance, and avoid outages caused by bursts or leaking pipes.

Digital twins could give citizens a visual representation of infrastructure and essential services, thereby giving them a better understanding of the work municipalities are doing and planning, he said.

Joburg’s virtual city

The City of Johannesburg announced in August that it would be piloting a digital twin model of its inner-city.

“The initiative aims to collect, capture, share, test and analyse relevant data of the Inner-City area defined by the Urban Development Zone (UDZ),” it said. “It involves conducting an urban quality assessment and building a 3D model of the pilot area with the goal of creating the City’s first digital twin that will improve planning decision making.”

The city said that the model seeks to test new and innovative ways of capturing and displaying spatial data for the inner city and to develop a three-dimensional digital twin for a pilot study area within the inner city boundaries.

The ultimate objective is to use this model for better-informed policy formulation and development decision making as well as a data platform onto which new data can be submitted and viewed on an ongoing basis, it said.

“It is envisioned during the initial phases of the project, the model would host a number of Geographic Information System functionalities such as viewing different sets of spatial layers, composing detailed area maps and viewing spatial policies to determine the direct impact of such policies on a specific site. This model would have multiple benefits for a range of diverse stakeholders.”

Read: The fines and demerit points you can expect under South Africa’s new driving laws

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