A TUM project links the virtual with the physical world – creating not only innovation in teaching, but also a powerful tool for sustainable forest management.
Anyone who has been more or less intensively involved with the major topics of digital transformation has most likely also stumbled across the term “digital twin”. This refers to exact digital replicas of physical phenomena and natural systems – from production processes and factories to entire cities and ecosystems. And the idea behind it is as ingenious as it is logical: Because with the help of such simulations, it has become easier than ever to analyze and optimize processes, test innovative concepts and develop solutions. Accordingly, decisions are increasingly being made today on the basis of representations of the “real” world in complex virtual systems. But where are the differences between these realities? And how can you train future leaders to make the best use of both? As part of the TUM internal project “Forest & Technology – VR2”, Prof. Dr. Michael Suda and Prof. Dr. Hans Pretzsch took up these questions and sought answers for the department of forest science – with great success! For after the first rollout, there was plenty of applause from the student body as well as real laurels to frame. In this article, the TUM lecturers reveal details from the development and implementation process, reflect on their next steps after receiving the Ernst-Otto-Fischer Teaching Award, and offer insights into how their innovative VR simulation will train future leaders to use virtual and physical reality.
Testing a complex theory against reality for the first time raises the pulse of even the most experienced scientist. After all, everything stands and falls with it. Everyone knows that what works on paper does not necessarily have to pass the acid test of reality. Thanks to technologies like VR, however, the digital transformation has created new ways to simulate this step: Today, high-tech data acquisition and processing systems enable the mapping of natural structures in virtual worlds. The two TUM professors Dr. Michael Suda and Dr. Hans Pretzsch have taken advantage of this possibility.
The forest as a digital and virtual real laboratory
“As part of our teaching project “Forest & Technology – VR2″, we first created teaching plots in the forest and collected data relevant to decision-making,” explains Prof. Suda from the Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy at the TUM School of Management. “Designed as a real laboratory, forestry measures such as timber harvesting and maintenance can be simulated there by students and their effects on the overall system recorded with the help of simulation models. In the virtual laboratory, this ‘forest’ is also available for simulations. Here, too, appropriate measures can be planned, implemented and evaluated,” adds Prof. Pretzsch, who works at the TUM Chair of Forest Growth and Yield Science. The idea behind it: The use of both laboratories in the training of students links the different realities that will be indispensable for the targeted planning and use of forests in the future.
Digital twins in forest science: a cross-disciplinary blueprint
The fact that the project made state-of-the-art technology usable for teaching in an exemplary manner not only earned the lecturers a lot of positive feedback, but also the TUM’s renowned Ernst-Otto-Fischer Prize for innovative further developments in higher education. However, the two forestry scientists don’t want to rest on their laurels – on the contrary. For them, the project offers the opportunity to establish the technology at the university across disciplines and to develop it further for teaching: “Our model of the ‘digital twin’ can be extended to other disciplines and thus expanded step by step. Ultimately, it has the potential to contribute to the networking of the disciplines, but also raise awareness of the limits of modeling,” says Prof. Suda.
To date, the VR2 simulation has been used exclusively in forest science. In the sample plots, for example, simple measured values such as tree height, diameter, crown width and crown length can be collected. Since each individual tree has been measured in detail for the project, students can reconcile their measured values and, in the next stage, simulate forestry measures such as the removal of individual trees. This can be done both in the forest stand and in virtual space. Afterwards, an evaluation then reveals which economic, nature conservation or ecological effects are associated with the measure. “Here, students can try to achieve an optimal timber yield or preserve as many microhabitats as possible,” explains Prof. Pretzsch. “However, both goals cannot be addressed simultaneously in the process. So we’re faced with a typical decision-making system of forestry practice, which we’ve integrated into the teaching.”
Meeting the environmental challenges of the future
The new possibilities opened up by VR in forest science are not a minute too soon. If you ask the two TUM professors, it is precisely such innovations that are becoming indispensable to meet the challenges of the future. “Climate change, with the floods and droughts of recent years, shows that our knowledge of forests, which cover one-third of Earth’s land surface, is eroding. The ability to plan for these long-lived ecosystems has reached its limits. We therefore need flexible managers who are able to make directional decisions despite enormous uncertainty,” says Prof. Pretzsch. Of course, practical exercises in the forest cannot be completely replaced with the help of simulations. However, the virtual abstraction and digitalization of forest ecosystems opens up completely new avenues for analysis, simulation and teaching. Michael Suda is also convinced of this. “This is where our model can make an important contribution.”