Five years after a Category 5 hurricane tore through Tyndall Air Force Base on Florida’s Panhandle, Booz Allen Hamilton has been working to create a digital twin of the 14-square-mile installation.
The idea has been to offer meaningful upgrades, rather than rebuild the base to its former state.
It has been called the “Installation of the Future” even before its expected 2025 re-opening.
Once completed, the digital version will be the first-of-its kind, full-scale digital twin of a Department of Defense installation.
“It’s a long process with the government,” said Dan McConnell, chief technologist at Booz Allen Hamilton. “You have to manage a lot of things besides that cool emerging tech, all at the same time. Security, government budgets, government shutdowns, all of the different things that can happen but it’s an exciting project nonetheless.”
McConnell gave a peek into the intricacies of digital twin work with the government on a panel during MetaCenter Global Week in Orlando.
The weeklong event brought in experts from across industries, including defense, to showcase expertise in emerging technologies.
The digital twin project came about because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, which whipped 162-mile-per-hour winds through the base on Columbus Day weekend in 2018.
The storm resulted in what was described as “catastrophic” damage, with the price tag estimated at $5 billion.
However, instead of rebuilding immediately, military officials sought to upgrade the 82-year-old installation’s technology.
Booz Allen Hamilton has partnered with Unity on the digital twin project, which the military intends to use as a potential blueprint for upgrades at other bases.
Building Government-Industry Relationship
To build a strong relationship with the government, McConnell said the company had to essentially meet its leaders where they were in terms of technology, budgets and pretty much any other aspect of the project.
The approach requires a flexible approach from both sides, he said.
For Booz Allen Hamilton, they show their work, “rather than just write a 50-page proposal and keep our fingers crossed,” he said.
“It’s smaller pots of money but when you can get your foot in the door and bring some partners in and build a small proof-of-concept, when you walk in and talk to senior leaders, they can see it and handle it,” McConnell said. “They understand the capability a little bit better.”
Beyond funding, however, a transition has been ongoing within the military.
During the past several years, officials have been quicker to monitor commercial solutions to see which they can incorporate into training.
That has, necessarily, meant creating ways for what once were long, careful but sometimes drawn-out authorization processes to be streamlined.
At times, the red tape took so long that solutions would be obsolete.
“There is a mindset-shift going on,” said Trista Pierce, Booz Allen Hamilton’s emerging technology strategist. “They have not been educated on the utility of emerging tech but when we put use cases in front of them and how it can be utilized, they lean forward and I see that continuing as the tech gets smaller, lighter and processing gets faster.”
That’s also the idea behind an initiative that saw McConnell and Pierce set to travel immediately following MetaCenter Global Week to military bases for a little bit of show-and-tell.
For the first time, the company will have soldiers strap on headsets to immerse themselves into mixed-reality training exercises.
The process will also include several days of monitoring, instruction and sessions that explain how the technology works.
It’s a product of an iterative approach, a term and strategy that was once exclusively heard and practiced in the commercial sector.
“This gives our clients something to react to right away,” Pierce said. “We can get that invaluable feedback and they love being a part of the process, too.”
Looking forward, the digital twin-based rebuild of Tyndall Air Force Base should see some facilities open as soon as 2025.
As they return, it will require the buy-in from senior leaders into the technology that is embedded in the base once it is adapted from the digital twin.
Military as a Leader for These Technology Thrusts
The idea that the military would be a leader in digital twins and potentially smart-city technology doesn’t take much of a leap.
McConnell compared installations like Tyndall to “little cities” that need infrastructure, mayors, water management facilities and other resources most cities need.
“When it comes to adoption, government is always trying to find a way to be more efficient,” he said.
It helps that so many military contractors now have former military on their staffs, McConnell said.
“When you can turn to someone who just retired after 20 years from the Secret Service or from a government agency, (while) also partnering with (them) to drive a solution, that becomes an asset,” he said.