In the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) many of the major companies, especially in the industrial sector (remember IoT is not just toys and connected fridges) talk about the lifecycle and management of Digital Twins. Not all twins are equal, which is a bit of a dichotomy, some are only 3D models of a real thing, some are cached data values from sensors, the fuller ones are all of that and some more thrown in. One of the uses of a twin is to be used to run other simulations and what-if scenarios on. On August 18th Microsoft effectively released an Earth sized digital twin with the Flight Simulator 2020. The connection this game makes to the physical world is well worth taking a look at to understand where the sort of instrumentation and live data across IoT can take us.

Why is it a digital twin?

The heart of any flight simulation is in providing as realistic and interesting experiences of take-off, flying around and landing again as possible. What Asobo Studio have built for Microsoft is an experience based on the entire surface of the Earth. Pilots are able to fly anywhere and see mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes based on satellite imagery and geographic data. What they have also done is train an Artificial Intelligence engine to look at the ariel photographs and to generate 3d models of trees, hedges, houses, offices and other structures. Some key locations have been built as 3D models by the developers, which is a more traditional approach to flight sim scenery. However the entire planet exists populated with these. It does not always get it right of course, but the beauty is it that any errors will likely be fed back from the community and the AI can be trained to be better and generate new models. This Bing imagery of the earth is not live of course, just like Google Earth, so it is a sort of Digital Twin, but a last known value of something. As it is digital it can exist in many forms and be used in many different simulations, i.e. each one installed on each users computer. However it can also act as a shared source of the truth for multiplayer flying experiences, we all see the same Earth.

There is much more to it

The simulation is able to update and stream information from a network connection and that includes a bunch more real time data. It can represent the correct weather at any point on the globe, so if you fly over your own house (as everybody does at some point) and it’s raining outside, your plane will experience that weather. This should not be a surprise as there are lots of weather feeds and apps to tell us the weather, but it is the combination into a game and simulation, where wind and weather pushes your plane around that make it special. It also pulls in data form FlightAware to have real flights arrive and depart should the player want to cope with finding the right landing slot at Heathrow.

Simulations are for trying things out

On top of all the real data, being a live version of the world it is a simulator, that means the user can pause the game engine and then tweak everything. Time of day, date and the weather with multiple pre-sets that can suddenly render the most amazing cloud formations around the plane. You can conjure up a lightning storm to fly through too. Also, as you might expect, as you can fly anywhere in the world you can also move the camera anywhere to watch it. A pilot is not stuck in the cockpit, looking at the incredible range of dials and buttons (which all work in the large range of different planes available), but can look outside the plane, fly a camera drone to the ground or just get a better view of a sunset. The quakity of the visuals will depend on how fancy a PC you have, but even on the lowest settings it looks fantastic. Also being a simulation it can do things that don’t usually happen, try flying over the a sandy dessert and making it snow.

What about the flying?

Flight sim has a massive array of options to help first time flyers learn the mechanics of flight. A tutorial in a Cessna takes you through from initial level flight to take off and landings and then into the wild grass of navigation and radio comms with air traffic control. It can fly for you too, putting autopilot even on small stunt planes, and for the true simulation fans you can have all the assists turned off and it then gets very real indeed. A series of ever changing challenges, such as landing on tricky run ways puts a bit of a points system in to mark you landing/crashing ability.

Is there a point to it?

There really is not specific point to Flight Sim 2020 other than to be able to play with the planes and with the fantastic model of Earth and its weather. Players choose what to do, you can just arrive at a location, already flying in the air to fly over Rio or the Grand Canyon. Or you can start at Lasham airfield, take off and follow the roads from the air into Basingstoke and try and land in Stratton Park. When I wrote my second sci-fi novel Cont3xt (follow up to Reconfigure) I scouted a location on Google Earth and visited a nearby town in Google Street view to get a feel for the place and be able to have actually been there. The real life private island for sale on the internet became the key location just off the coast of Brazil. It felt really special a few years on to be able to fly over that, it was as real and special as flying over my own house. If they put helicopters in I will be able to land on the helipad there too. So there is no actual point to it all but there is certainly lots to do and try.

The future

There is already a great deal of buzz about this simulator supporting VR in the very near future, given how good space flight sims like Elite Dangerous and No Mans Sky are it will make this even more interesting. For now though, I am off to gaze at some stunning cloud formations, and maybe try to not make such a big hole in the ground at the end of the journey. Practice makes perfect.