Digital engineering for space

How digital twins of future physical systems speed development

They call it digital engineering, and it’s part of the Department of Defense’s strategy for agile production of the technologies needed to stay ready for anything.

The approach takes every part of a system’s lifecycle – design, testing, manufacturing and operations – and renders each, in digital detail, in a virtual environment. Using realistic modeling and simulation, digital engineering saves time and money by exposing potential problems and identifying opportunities to optimize long before real-world production begins.

“In today’s rapid-development environment, we’re using keyboard strokes and digital media to design and build digital twins of future physical products,” said Matt Magaña, vice president, Space Systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “This influences everything from our systems engineering processes, what and how we buy from the supply base, the way we test systems, the way we manage our programs, to how to build the right manufacturing environment and when to test payloads – all for maximum efficiency.”

Digital engineering was at the center of WorldView Legion, a system of Earth-observing satellites that Raytheon Intelligence & Space helped create for Maxar Technologies. The Space Systems team developed a new digital approach to deliver upon a production schedule of one payload – that’s one instrument – every month.

Maxar’s WorldView Legion’s satellites will offer accurate and timely data about the Earth using high-resolution imagery and a high “revisit rate,” or the number of times per day a satellite images a specific location. With digital engineering, the team was working with production in mind, even in the earliest stages of design.

“From the beginning, we digitally designed a lab with a focus on production,” said Madison Dye, WorldView Legion systems engineer for Space & C2 Systems at RI&S. “Rather than manufacturing when required, we treated it like a production line, all in one room. We were able to build all of our hardware before we even finished testing one full flight.”

Digital engineering also does away with the two-dimensional documents that engineers and technicians have historically used. Instead, they work from realistic and interactive 3-D models – including one that simulated the production and buildup of the satellite, right down to the flow of hardware through the factory.

That essentially gave the team a risk-free run-through of production – and an opportunity to learn from it and adapt.

“Document-based instructions are great for planning, but more often than not, plans change when you least expect them to,” said Dye. “That’s where digital engineering is helpful. It mitigates the unknown unknowns.”

One of those “unknown unknowns” was the question of when to bring in the shipping containers. Typically, they arrive only once the instruments are ready for delivery. But, given the quick-turn production schedule, the team realized they should bring them in early.

“Bringing the shipping containers into our digital environment early ensured we would be able to keep the containers close by without interfering in the production workflow,” said Dye.

An added benefit is that customers can use the virtual version of the hardware to review and validate it. That, in turn, speeds up their ability to train and prepare for acceptance of the physical system.

This is significant for the user community. Operators will know how to drive the instrument’s interfaces and what parameters to alter for missions well ahead of receiving the system.

“We’re employing digital engineering in the spirit of ‘fail fast, learn fast,’” said Magaña. “It has the ability to significantly reduce the occurrence of those unknown unknowns. And, by learning everything before the hardware is built, we are able to deliver on the commitments we make to our customers.”