Tallinn University of Technology

The importance of digital twins is increasing rapidly with the digitalisation of production processes, making the remote control of equipment more and more normal. TalTech’s Virtual Control Laboratory plays an important role in this process, transforming the life of students beyond all recognition.

Eduard Petlenkov
Professor Eduard Petlenkov

This means that a crane operator will no longer have to physically sit in the driver’s cab as has been the case so far; instead, they can control the machine from a distance – figuratively speaking, they could do it from home while having a cup of coffee. A crane operating in Ida-Viru County while the operator controls it from Hiiumaa would not be at all surprising.

What are digital twins? Eduard Petlenkov, Professor at the School of Information Technologies and the Head of the Centre for Intelligent Systems of TalTech, explains that digital twins are digital copies of complex processes working in real time, which are going to be an inseparable part of future industry (Industry 4.0 and Industry 5.0). Related to this, TalTech has great news which affect both the industrial companies as well as the current students in Estonia.

Cost savings and enormous efficiency

‘At the beginning of the year, the management of the School of Information Technologies supported our development project ‘New Digital Twins-based Teaching Methods’, which aims to create a virtual learning and research laboratory for automated control that, in turn, consists of the digital twins of laboratory models of industrial processes and systems. These can be used as a contemporary remote laboratory, using VR or AR glasses or an ordinary PC so that the virtual laboratory can be used in a university course on automated control.’

According to Petlenkov, a correctly designed control system could considerably reduce energy and material consumption, waste, and pollution. ‘Control systems will also have an important role in ensuring safety in the automated environments of the future.’ At the same time, the latest technologies enable increasing the efficiency of studies without using complicated and expensive physical equipment and test objects.

Students praise the new miracle laboratory

Petlenkov states that feedback from students collected over a long time has indicated that the bottleneck in teaching the theory of automated control is the possibility of testing the developed algorithms and designed systems in actual industrial processes. The study lab of virtual automated control is essentially a new e-learning method, where the control of industrial processes can be studied in a computer class or at home.

‘This takes the teaching of automated control to a new technological level. A set of digital twins of industrial process prototypes (a virtual study lab) is created to do this. Students will learn to design controllers in the MATLAB/Simulink environment and then implement and test the synthesised controllers in a virtual environment,’ Petlenkov explains.

The following twins of control processes have been created in virtual reality: overhead crane, tower crane, magnetic levitation, inverted pendulum, a system for controlling liquid levels. These processes help to understand various industrial systems which need efficient control. It helps to understand the principles of automated control (controllability, speed of control, navigability, vibrations, etc.) and the safety requirements of applications that are created on a much deeper level. Objects created in virtual reality can be connected to the MATLAB/Simulink environment, where a control system can be designed, the result can be examined, and the system can be tested in virtual reality.

The new study method is already included in several MSc courses

The new environment is already included in actual courses. ‘During the spring semester, MSc students of computer systems and mechatronics already conducted their lab work in the virtual environment during the course ‘IAS0031 Modelling and Identification’. Now, the virtual lab is going to be used in the MSc course ‘IAS0023 Intelligent Control Systems’.

While developing the virtual laboratory, a whole array of scientific problems related to designing digital twins were researched and solved. The project has been partly funded by grants PRG658 and PRG1463 from the Estonian Research Council.

For more details on research results, please read the article published in IEEE Access: ‘ReImagine Lab: Bridging the Gap Between Hands-On, Virtual and Remote Control Engineering Laboratories Using Digital Twins and Extended Reality’ (by S. Alsaleh, A. Tepljakov, A. Köse, J. Belikov and E. Petlenkov).