Digital Engineering the Key to Moving at the Speed of Innovation

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Digital Engineering
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Aaron Robosky, 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit F-35A Lightning II assistant dedicated crew chief, uses a wireless capable ruggedized laptop during an F-35 inspection Feb. 3, 2022, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Collette Brooks)

The military vehicles, platforms, and weapons systems of tomorrow are more software-enabled and network-connected than ever before. They’re also being developed with open standards to meet Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) mandates and requirements. Together these characteristics create systems that are more easily upgraded and equipped with new capabilities and functionality for today’s soldiers.

And this couldn’t come at a better time. The modern military will be operating in what U.S. Army General James E. Rainey has referred to as a “transparent battlefield.” In this environment, allied forces will be under a constant state of surveillance – revealing many of the military’s strategies and resources to the enemy, and taking away the element of surprise.

The transparent battlefield makes it increasingly essential for the U.S. Department of Defense to provide the latest functionality and the most effective capabilities to allied forces, and they need to be delivered at the speed of innovation. They also need the ability to quickly test and simulate strategies to gauge effectiveness before launching missions and offensives. This will ensure that the military can rapidly adjust its tactics and strategies based on what is happening on the battlefield and make better, more-informed decisions that are more assured of mission success.

But how can the DoD move rapidly and safely to keep the tactical edge for allied forces, while still being deliberate and disciplined in the testing, evaluation, and verification of new systems?

Digital engineering shifts testing left
In the past, a new solution, capability, or component that was being developed for a military vehicle or platform would have to be designed and a physical prototype would have to be developed before any testing could be conducted. There was no other alternative since there was no way to test a component or capability that didn’t yet physically exist.

Unfortunately, since testing was difficult to conduct until the end of the design and development process, any design deficiencies, security vulnerabilities, or other problems couldn’t be identified until late in the process. This would often result in expensive and time-consuming changes and updates that would lengthen project times and increase costs.

However, the emergence of digital engineering, model-based systems engineering (MBSE), digital twins, and the DevOps approach to capability development have changed that.

Digital engineering is opening the door to more rapid prototyping, the accelerated testing and assessment of components and applications, and the streamlining of projects and programs.

These technologies and approaches to product and capability development have effectively shifted testing, evaluation, and verification/validation of new solutions to earlier in the development lifecycle. By continuously testing virtual models of components and applications from design through development, requirements and approaches can be validated, and problems can be identified much earlier in the process, enabling program teams to find and implement solutions before significant money and time are spent developing a flawed solution.

One of the companies that has embraced digital engineering in the development of components and applications for the DoD is Collins Aerospace. According to Dustin Engelhardt, a Senior Manager of Business Development at Collins Aerospace, this increased use of digital engineering and virtual integration has resulted in the more effective and efficient design and development of military solutions.

“Through the use of models, digital engineering has allowed for running automated trade studies to assess system compatibility, enabled rapid architecture and design analysis early in the product lifecycle, and brought design deficiencies forward,” said Engelhardt. “Digital engineering and the DevOps approach to application development have reduced the cost to fix deficiencies and enabled automated security scanning and testing – improving quality and reducing the time between delivery cycles.”

Not only has digital engineering and DevOps shifted testing left, but they’ve also streamlined the entire product development process, cutting down on manual processes, increasing automation, and enabling companies like Collins Aerospace to bring new technologies and capabilities to bear for the DoD in a more seamless and timely fashion.

These virtualized environments remove the on-site requirements for development and integration allowing distributed teams to collaborate more efficiently.

“By utilizing Digital Twins and virtualized lab environments, Collins can implement Infrastructure as Code (IaC), Configuration as Code (CaC), and Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) DevOps processes,” Engelhardt explained. “Our developers can then repeatedly and rapidly stand-up virtual integration labs through automation, reducing the need for physical labs and spaces that require manual processes. This has allowed Collins to be more efficient – delivering greater value to our customers with shorter development timelines.”

These virtualized environments remove the on-site requirements for development and integration allowing distributed teams to collaborate more efficiently. Digital twins and virtualized labs also allow teams to quickly iterate through designs and implementations for quality control without the need for real hardware or real labs. Combined, these advancements enable the DOD to rapidly validate concepts, gain confidence in the technology to solve difficult to demonstrate scenarios, and will enable the rapid performance of mission assessments in the future.

But do these virtual labs deliver actual results in the real world?

Project Medusa proves the benefits of digital engineering are not a myth
The future of air warfare involves more than just crewed and uncrewed aircraft. The air battles of the future will involve crewed aircraft and uncrewed, autonomous aircraft working collaboratively to accomplish a mission.

These autonomous, uncrewed vehicles that are launched from crewed aircraft to aid in operations are known as air-launched effects (ALE). They are launched from helicopters in groups of five or six and then work as a team to identify air defense systems, military targets, and other items of note for crewed aircraft and senior military decision-makers.

Collins has been developing a system for the military called Project Medusa that enables the deployment of ALEs. And this project has benefitted directly from its embrace of digital engineering – going from conception to completion in near record time. “Project Medusa was a definitive proof point that the digital engineering tools that we’ve been developing are working,” said Engelhardt. “Without those tools, we wouldn’t have been able to go from a concept in a PowerPoint presentation to flying in three months.”

The combination of digital twin technologies and the DevOps approach to application development enabled Collins to make rapid improvements to the RapidEdge™ Mission System, allowing them to add capabilities and eliminate deficiencies in hours rather than days.

Utilizing the company’s RapidEdge™ Mission System Software and Infrastructure – which had previously only been deployed in a lab environment – Project Medusa demonstrated a multi-ship, autonomous teaming mission in a live, virtual, and constructive simulation. These simulations combined a team of live and constructive UAVs with simulated payloads seeking and acting against simulated threats.

The Project Medusa system was composed of two uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and a single, combined Mobile Control and Simulator (MCS) with multiple software components. The first component was the mission planning and mission control software that allowed operators to set the objectives and parameters for the team of UAS prior to the start of the mission, launch the aircraft, monitor status, observe a synthetic view of the environment, and initiate abort procedures.

Secondly, the MCS ran four instances of the mission system software – two directly controlling the physical aircraft, and two controlling the simulated aircraft. The third component of the MCS was a high-fidelity simulation that included the environment, aircraft, communications, threats and more. By combining these components into one MCS, Collins gained powerful and flexible Live, Virtual and Constructive (LVC) capability.

The combination of digital twin technologies and the DevOps approach to application development enabled Collins to make rapid improvements to the RapidEdge™ Mission System, allowing them to add capabilities and eliminate deficiencies in hours rather than days.

“By creating a Digital Twin of the RapidEdge™ Mission System, the team was able to utilize DevOps processes to automate manual integration and deployment tasks, allowing for rapid development and rapid testing,” Engelhardt explained. “This enabled the team to effortlessly redeploy software and configurations and make software changes on-site at flight testing. We could then automatically run thousands of accelerated flight hours in just a few minutes, and have the confidence to use the updated mission system in a flight test in less than 24 hours.”

In the age of the transparent battlefield, mission success relies on pushing new capabilities to the warfighter quickly, make data-driven decisions, and simulating missions in advance.

Digital engineering is opening the door to more rapid prototyping, the accelerated testing and assessment of components and applications, and the streamlining of projects and programs. By embracing digital engineering, DevOps, and MBSE, companies like Collins are able to conduct systems testing far earlier than in previous developments, create quality systems more quickly, and get new capabilities into the hands of allied forcesfaster.