A digital partner to building better, faster

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published July 19, 2022
U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center

Kelly Ervin, a computer scientist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), uses augmented reality technology developed at ITL to inspect a mock boiler room. (U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center)

Each month, Jonathan Boone comes into his office in Vicksburg, Mississippi, sits down and inputs data collected from the ongoing construction of a new state-of-the-art medical facility in Missouri. He updates timelines, construction schedules, supply chain information and recent permitting approvals.

For Boone, a research civil engineer at ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory, inputting this data is more than just part of a monthly to-do list. It is ongoing research and validation of an expansive digital twin effort to support construction of the new hospital in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

At its most basic, a digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-life system, piece of equipment, valuable infrastructure or the plans for an impending project, system or equipment. While this definition is broad, the technology’s application is even more broad, but has the single focus of providing new insights to old and current challenges.

In the case of 4D Building Information Modeling (4D BIM) – one of the digital twin tools in use within USACE – the hospital construction engineers, project managers and stakeholders can better visualize the construction schedule for better, faster decisions.  

For Fort Leonard Wood’s 235,400 square-foot hospital, Boone created a virtual layout, giving key decision makers the ability to view a completed facility long before the first shovel of dirt was turned. Now, with construction well under way, the capability of this virtual program allows all involved to ensure the project stays on track and mitigate schedule delays and cost overruns.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings, and we are saving that time and increasing stakeholder awareness,” Boone said. “We are increasing knowledge transfer, so everyone is on the same page when the keys are turned over.”

4D BIM is just one example of the expanding digital twin universe within USACE. From the construction of the new hospital in Fort Leonard Wood, to virtual replicas of structures and operation systems at hydroelectric dams, to reconstruction efforts at Tyndall Air Force Base, to providing virtual testbeds for U.S. Army installations of the future, digital twins have shown their worth in helping USACE deliver projects on time and within budget.

Advancements in digital twins, particularly in the use of augmented virtual reality, has allowed USACE Districts and Divisions a new capability to access challenging engineering issues and connect with a wider ecosystem of subject matter experts.

“By going out and capturing data, they can create a virtual representation – a twin – of a structure or problem area, bring that back into the office and allow someone else who hasn’t been out in the field, or a subject matter expert elsewhere, to help solve a particular problem,” Boone said.

The use of virtual reality has also allowed USACE personnel to review world-class research abroad without the time and expense of traveling.

“As an example, we have the ability to put you inside ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory’s physical model hangar,” he said. “From a distance, Louisville District engineers can virtually observe and tour the Rough River Model. They were not able to come and evaluate [the model], but we were able to go to the model, capture it as a digital twin and give them the opportunity to see it in operation and offer feedback, saving them travel and time.”

The use of digital twins, while around for decades, is among the key components of USACE’s research and development priorities to improve the decision-making process within its 43 Districts and nine Divisions, while also helping modernize our nation’s infrastructure.

In collaboration with the development of advanced sensor technology, digital twins are providing tremendous insights into the operations of legacy infrastructure components, allowing for more efficient operations and detailed analysis of critical systems.

“These are opportunities where we can turn our infrastructure into data sets,” Boone said. “Once we’ve done that, we can then apply additional machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“We are learning what we can do with this,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’ll continue to learn … and we’ll get there.”