How can the telecoms industry successfully adopt digital twins?
In space exploration, NASA needed a way to monitor and control each of its spacecraft, space stations and satellites that were sent from Earth, writes Ganesan Arulanandham, a consulting partner at Wipro.
NASA’s mission control centres used the digital representation of the space assets to monitor their status, performance, health and even help train astronauts to handle issues proactively. The idea was to remotely monitor, operate, maintain, preempt and even fix issues that might possibly arise while the machines were in space. That was perhaps the origin of the digital twin concept.
A digital twin (DT) is a virtual digital representation of a physical object with all or most of its dynamics. The use of DT started with assets that were remote, high cost, complex or critically important like aircraft engines, spacecraft, and machines in factories. The concept is now being applied to many industries as it allows for proactive monitoring, control and even the preventive maintenance of machines and services since the operational data and dynamics of the field products flow back to the DT almost immediately.
Today, manufacturing, transportation and energy industries have started to apply DT to several areas including wind farms, oil refineries, aircraft, cars and plant machines. Tesla has a DT for every car it builds which allows it to resolve many issues with over-the-air configuration adjustments, eliminating the need to recall cars.
Adoption in the telecoms industry
Given the pervasive internet of things (IoT) deployments and 5G rollouts, the communications industry needs to gear itself to meet the next wave of network and service demands. Fast connectivity needs, smart devices and all digital services could create a lot of stress on telecoms infrastructure, becoming inundating to monitor and manage.
Telecoms providers would need state-of-the-art tools to brace themselves and manage the wave of change. Today, most use a disparate set of tools and technologies for planning, design, deployment, operations and management of networks from multiple different vendors. They are mostly used in siloes between departments, do not provide holistic intelligence and the required coordination to bridge the gap between the design, production and operation functions of both the network infrastructure and services.
The next-generation need is to stitch all these tools and technologies together to enable providers to see a unified view of their networks and services and accelerate their digitalisation strategy.
Digital twin could address all their challenges. DT is the melting pot of many of the latest technologies including big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), immersive experiences, the cloud, sensors, open standard APIs and 5G technologies, all of which are available to take telecommunications into the much-desired digital future. DT could help providers intelligently design their services and networks and with its proactive monitoring and predictive maintenance functionalities it could potentially put an end to customer complaints.
Telecoms digital twin use cases
Telecoms providers’ entire network or parts of their network such as sites, towers, network elements and services are potential candidates for a digital twin. A digital twin will begin to transform providers in several ways:
Telecoms sites or towers have numerous pieces of equipment such as antennae, base station equipment (BTS/NodeB/eNodeB), power generators, batteries, fire alarms, surveillance cameras and aircraft warning lights. Towers in remote locations are difficult to manage and sustain. They require continuous monitoring.
Today, all sorts of data including proximity, image, touch, temperature, motion and position, can be collected from the telecom sites using sensor networks and analysed using AI/ML algorithms. All this data can be fed into a DT of the tower or site which can allow operations and field service management to reactively and proactively address issues.
Telecoms sites and towers typically have multi-vendor equipment. Their field performance, lifecycle statistics, fault related data and patterns are important for equipment providers to address in their design process to improve their equipment. Through a DT, telecoms providers can share this data and insights as a service to equipment providers and benefit from monetisation of the data.
Field service management
Today, field service personnel go to field with little on-hand information. When a site or tower fails due to a variety of reasons, it’s not easy for them to be prepared for all type of possible failures. Inefficiencies in any function of field service can cause inordinate delays. A DT enabled with augmented reality will be a boon to field staff. They will be pre-equipped with all information and solutions before they go on site, and when at the site, experts can also assist them from the command centre by observing the DT that mirrors what’s on site.
Network planning and design
Network capacity planning and design is another area where a DT can greatly help providers. Deployed network configurations change over time or when new equipment gets introduced. Maintaining an accurate inventory of network elements and keeping track of changing configuration has always been a challenge for operators. There is also always a gap in what’s in production and what’s available for planning and design activities.
Telecoms providers use a variety of tools in network modelling, planning, simulation, deployment, orchestration and operation support activities. These are mostly used in isolation and lack the capability to provide a holistic, dynamic end-to-end view of the network and its services with the history of changes. A DT can bring together all these tool capabilities resulting in accurate network inventory and user/device data from live operations. A DT’s AI/ML capabilities can analyse data, simulate, plot patterns, identify anomalies, predict faults and take design and correction actions dynamically.
Programmable network DevOps
With the evolution of software-defined networks, the network has become programmable. Multiple vendors are providing SDN solutions which are built in a modular, standard API-based architecture and tuned to run in the cloud. This enables faster service innovation and deployment. However, every new service requires planning, design and deployment activities coordinated with intelligent information and decisions. This requires bringing together and testing the interworking of multiple vendor devices and solutions. A DT of the network and associated services together with all functionalities and behaviors could become the DevOps playground, where every new service is simulated, tested and design adjusted before being deployed on the real network.
A digital twin itself is not a technology. It’s the confluence of many of the latest digital technologies which help to draw business outcomes and benefit industries. It is a next-generation solution that brings together the assets of multiple technology vendors, equipment providers and system integrators to create value for the enterprise. It’s an approach that brings together all the intelligence, insights, tools, power of visualisation and automation to enable telecommunication companies to the digital operations of the future. Through DT, they can manage the network and services in an intelligent, proactive, dynamic and automated way. Realization of a digital twin requires telecoms ecosystem partners to work together in a collaborative way.