A water company in North East England is developing pioneering software to help protect communities from flooding and other major incidents.

Working with post-graduate students from Newcastle University, Northumbrian Water is exploring the use of ‘digital twin’ technology to create a virtual model of the real world. This allows the water company to run computer-generated simulations of incidents such as burst pipes, heavy rainfall or serious flooding, to show what could happen to peoples’ homes and local communities over a 24-hour period in just a couple of minutes.

Northumbrian Water, together with emergency responders, will be able to run the simulations for any locations where an incident happens (or might happen) and identify problems quickly and easily – improving planning, decision making and response times.

As well as showing, for example, what would happen if the River Tyne rose by a few metres, the digital twin could also be used to model human behaviour, such as determining the most likely routes people would use in the event of a flood, the Guardian reports.

Chris Kilsby, Professor of Hydrology and Climate Change at Newcastle University, told the newspaper: “If you are a car manufacturer and you want to test how safe your car is, you can get a real car and put in crash test dummies and drive it into a wall. But that’s quite expensive.

If you think ‘I wish we had done it with these tyres instead’, you have to do it all again. But if a computer model is good enough you can run it thousands of times with all sorts of different variations.

So in the same way, you can try lots of things with the twin that in the case of a city you are just are unable to do. I think of it as a replica that you can play with and do unimaginable things to see what would happen.

Digital twin technology has the potential to “change the whole industry in terms of how water companies plan and prepare for incidents, and also the ability to future-proof their assets and networks,” said Northumbrian Water’s research and development manager, Chris Jones.