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City of Jackson Turns to Digital Twins to Fix Its Water Problems

Digital twins have emerged as a valuable way to simulate and model extraordinarily complex systems. Here’s how a city in Mississippi applied this technology to improve its water quality.

Samuel Greengard

March 9, 2023

5 Min Read
United States Mississippi Jackson City view from Pearl River Jackson Mississippi
Avalon Bruce Coleman Inc via Alamy Stock

For years, the City of Jackson, Mississippi has encountered serious problems with its water supply. At various moments and for various reasons, fresh water has been unreliable and unavailable. Things hit rock bottom during stretches of 2021 and 2022, when the entire water delivery system for Jackson failed for weeks at a time. During the crisis, nearly 150,000 residents were left without fresh tap water.

As the city works to lift itself out of the morass, it has embraced advanced technology -- specifically digital twins -- to better identify, diagnose, and resolve issues. With the system, “It’s possible to view pipes, pumps, tanks, and other infrastructure within a digital twin. The model provides information that guides accurate decisions,” says Carolyn Rose, senior manager for customer success at software firm Autodesk.

Although fixing the city’s water problems won’t be easy -- and the issue is intertwined with politics and practical problems that create further complications -- a digital twin promises to recalibrate everything from operational efficiency and costs to water quality. “The use of a digital twin will allow Jackson to continually improve the performance of the water distribution system,” says Ted Henifin, who was appointed by the US Justice Department to manage the transition to a more modern framework.

A New Wave of Insight

In recent years, digital twins have emerged as a valuable way to simulate and model extraordinarily complex systems. The framework creates a virtual representation of a real-world system, and it is increasingly used for tasks as diverse as predicting manufacturing errors, understanding consumer behavior, and improving the efficiency of healthcare.

In the utility industry, digital twins play an increasingly prominent role in understanding and modeling complex and often aging infrastructure. The technology connects data from disparate but intertwined data sources, which may exist in digital systems, spreadsheets or even in paper-based files. A digital twin makes it possible to analyze operational, maintenance and repair costs -- and use predictive analytics to avoid breakdowns and failures.

In August 2022, the City of Jackson began using Autodesk’s InfoWater Pro software, which generates a highly detailed virtual replica of a water distribution system and then displays it through a graphical interface. The software delivers actual visual representations of underground infrastructure and helps engineers and officials examine a wide range of situations and scenarios -- including water flow and pressures, how certain conditions impact performance, and how a pipe break, flood or contamination would impact the system.

“For a water distribution system, you have to understand not only the hydraulic parameters -- you have to consider pipes, water valves, pump stations, storage tanks, treatment facilities, and many other factors. In addition, the information must be spatially projected properly, and everything must be exactly calibrated with sensor data in the actual infrastructure, so that you can ensure that you’re making the best possible decisions,” Rose explains.

Going With the Flow

Constructing the model was no simple task. Autodesk had to import data for approximately 843 miles of pipe and 17 pumps. It also had to include satellite and topography data, geocoded locational data for equipment and components, and detailed specifications for actual assets and equipment. This included everything from types of pumps and flow rates to the age, elevation, and diameter of pipes.

Using AutoCAD drawings, shapefiles, geodatabases, and other resources, the calibration process began. By comparing the digital twin model with the actual IoT sensors streaming live data, engineers verified that the digital twin was operating with a high level of accuracy. “We were able to use real-time sensor data to ensure that the model is accurate,” Rose says.

“The digital twin for our distribution system will allow us to identify the causes of pressure challenges and test various solution scenarios to find the most cost-effective solution set. There is no other way to understand the impact of changes to such a complex system,” Henefin explains. This includes bypass valving scenarios, assistance finding leaks, and “making daily operation decisions with a full view of the impact on every customer.”

Processes that previously required days or weeks now take place in hours or sometimes even minutes, Rose says. What’s more, the digital twin can detect events and problems that would have previously flown under the radar. “Much of this data is simply too complex for humans to process in any useful way. The system makes it possible to extend capabilities beyond what was previously possible,” she says.

For example, if the water pressure in the delivery network drops below 20 pounds per square inch (PSI) -- a level that can lead to systemwide failure -- the digital twin can identify a specific recommended course of action, such as replacing a specific pump or changing the way pumps are used. “It may tell us that we need to turn on the pump several times a day at a specific level to avoid the problem,” Rose explains.

Quality Water for All

Another benefit of the digital twin is that engineers can now focus on broader and more strategic issues, including how to improve water quality over the long term. “There are a remarkable number of factors that go into how water quality decays, including what takes place at the treatment facility, how pipes and corrosion affect water quality, and the way water flows the entire system,” Rose says.

The digital twin will also aid in other planning efforts. This includes things like adding to or modernizing physical infrastructure and understanding how rainfall, storm-water runoff, floods, and other events directly or indirectly affect the water delivery system. The system can also factor in population growth and how changes in development -- such as a new school, shopping center, or office building -- impact the water supply.

To be sure, digital twins are ushering in a new era of efficiency for water utilities -- and the City of Jackson hopes to see transformative results. “The goal is to produce safe, clean, and high-quality drinking water,” Rose says.

Adds Henefin: “The digital twin is fundamental to making Jackson's water reliable once again and relegating the recent challenges to the city’s history.”

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About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

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