Brought to you in partnership with CGI

A fascinating computer simulation of our planet is being created by CGI and the European Space Agency to solve issues with global food systems 

THE power of super computers and Artificial Intelligence software is currently being harnessed to build a ‘digital twin’ of the Earth that could soon be used to help solve some of the biggest challenges facing humanity.

Computer technology is now so advanced that such a simulation is within reach – and scientists believe it could not only find solutions to food production shortages but many other  threats to future prosperity.

At the forefront of this quest is CGI, which has just recently been awarded a contract by the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop the prototype.
Initially, this will focus on food production and is intended to predict the effects of climate change on crops and illustrate how these could be combatted.

It is hoped this Food System Digital Twin Precursor will demonstrate the scientific value of a bigger scale digital twin Earth in understanding and improving the productivity and resilience of global food systems.

Ultimately, Earth’s digital twin is planned to be a dynamic, high resolution reconstruction of the planet and its complex processes in order to support advanced science-based decision making at an unprecedented scale. In regards to food supply issues, it could be used as an effective tool to predict what will happen in areas hit by climate change by showing the effects of growing different crops and using different techniques. 

As well as improving the resilience of crops, it could also help reduce pesticide use – improving the impact on the environment as well as increasing yields. Carbon emissions could also be reduced by accurately modelling how different crops could be grown effectively in different places so they are harvested nearer local markets, decreasing the need for transport.

This digital twin would be a “game-changer” according to Jaime Reed, CGI’s vice president of space data platforms and applications in the UK. “People have dreamed of modelling these really big, tricky problems for years and now, because of the computing power that is available, we are finally on the verge of being able to do it which is exciting,” he said.

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“We hear a lot of negative things about companies using data for advertising and so on but we can take a lot of that technology and use it to make tangible differences to people’s lives.”

He said CGI’s digital twin was intended to be a proof of concept, to see whether it could be done. “It’s a really good idea but it is a very big challenge,” he said.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before other than weather forecasting, which has taken 50 years using computers to get to where we are today. Everybody thinks it is feasible but we need to prove it so this project is really on that cutting edge to show it is possible.”

CGI will build the precursor using its digital data platform technology incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques. A model integration will bring together multiple data sets, including socio-economic and physical measurements to demonstrate how powerful these advanced technologies can be for solving today’s most pressing challenges. 

The precursor will be developed by an industrial and scientific team including Oxford University Innovation, Trillium and IIASA. A wide ranging stakeholder group of scientists and users will support the precursor to ensure it is truly state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose and will build momentum towards ground-breaking digital innovation in Europe.

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Reed said it took “a lot of hard work” to win the project but there is now a first class team working on it, including stakeholders who could provide valuable input on the kind of problems they would like solved.

“The aim is to build something that is useful, so that is why we need to have the stakeholders guiding us,” he said. “There is a strong academic link there as well so it is really about the community coming together to deliver a game changer.”

CGI has, in fact, been delivering complex, mission-critical space software systems for clients across Europe, Asia and North America supporting satellite navigation, communications and operations, to space enabled applications for over 40 years.

Reed said: “This builds on all the heritage we have in this area as we have been doing this kind of thing for quite a long time.”
The prototype will use satellite data that monitors crops and combines it with data on weather, climate and population movement and growth to produce holistic modelling.

An example of how it would work would be to provide predictions of what will happen as a result of the UK changing its way of managing crops now that it has left the EU.

“The aim is now to improve biodiversity which is a big policy change but nobody really knows what is going to happen because there are no integrated simulation systems at present,” Reed said. Modelling of crop production in climate stressed areas would be of interest to aid agencies, the World Bank and the UN, he pointed out.“One of the problems at the moment is that it is quite hard to evaluate what the solutions are because everything is done quite experimentally,” said Reed. 

The Digital Twin Earth would be able to run through different scenarios to see what would work best in order to make more informed decisions on food production. 

Gordon Campbell at ESA said: ‘‘This is an extremely challenging development activity, linking diverse analysis capabilities to provide a step change in the information available to decision makers in domains such as food security, protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, planning energy production and managing resource utilisation within the framework of the European Green Deal. The range of competencies within the team is well suited to addressing this challenge and developing a prototype system to enable target stakeholders to explore the opportunities afforded by these new analysis tools.”

Shaun Stretton, Senior Vice President for UK & Australia Space Control and Information Solutions at CGI added: “We are excited to be part of the ESA Digital Twin Earth programme which will enable the scientific community to better understand the environmental changes impacting our global food supply. This project builds on our ongoing support to the European Space Agency and Thematic Exploitation Platforms.”


High hopes of creating a better world

Data gathering advances may not only assist with global food shortages but also improve climate change predictions

ACCURATE data will be essential to enable the Digital Twin Earth to produce valid and precise modelling of the results of climate change and weather patterns on food production.

Much of this data will be gleaned from the satellites that orbit the planet, monitoring its climate and weather.

These observations could now be made much more accurate by a new project which also involves CGI.

Called TRUTHS, it is a UK-led mission, designed to improve Earth observation data in order to drive improved climate change modelling.

It is intended to increase the ability for climate benchmarking and satellite cross-calibration, enabling a metrology laboratory in space as well as providing measurements of the solar spectrum to address scientific questions.  

It is being led by Airbus in the UK and involves the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and other ESA member states and will be delivered by the European Space Agency (ESA) to enable in-flight calibration of Earth Observation (EO) satellites.

If successful, it will help deliver improved confidence in Earth observation data gathered from space and the critical forecasts provided by this data.
CGI’s role is to define the Payload Data Ground System (PDGS) for the Traceable Underpinning Terrestrial and Helio-Studies (TRUTHS) satellite.  

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“Accuracy of data is vital in helping scientists understand the impact of climate change and we are proud to be supporting this mission with our strong heritage of ground segment control and space data exploitation,” said Shaun Stretton, Senior Vice President for UK & Australia Space Control and Information Solutions at CGI.