AFRL’s Digital Hangar to support lifecycle management of aerospace systems

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One goal of AFRL’s Digital Hangar effort is to research and identify high-value data that need to be maintained, or curated, to produce an enduring set of digital artifacts for aerospace platforms that can be shared with other AFRL researchers, Air Force Service Program Offices, as well as other agencies such as NASA. (Air Force illustration by Kenneth McNulty)

There is a new hangar under construction at Wright-Patterson AFB, but this one will not be made of steel and concrete, but rather digital ones and zeros.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s “Digital Hangar,” a concept created by Dr. Rick Graves, an Aerospace Research Engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Design & Analysis Branch, part of AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, is a virtual repository containing digital surrogates of aerospace systems that have been gated through rigorous validation and verification processes.

One goal of the effort, Graves says, is to research and identify high-value data that need to be maintained, or curated, to produce an enduring set of digital artifacts for aerospace platforms that can be shared with other AFRL researchers, Air Force Service Program Offices, as well as other agencies such as NASA.

Creation and curation of the Digital Hangar is part of a Department of Defense Digital Engineering initiative that began in June 2018, with the publication of a Digital Engineering Strategy that explains how DOD hopes to transform how the services design, develop, deliver, operate, and sustain systems. To read the strategy, visit https://www.acq.osd.mil/se/initiatives/init_de.html.

The strategy defines digital engineering as an integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of system data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support lifecycle activities from concept through disposal.

Graves, who grew up under the open skies of Oklahoma, used to dream about becoming an astronaut, though health issues ultimately prevented that from happening. He says he enjoys working at the lab where he interacts with other DOD civilian employees, as well as scientists and engineers who wear the uniform. He said this is fulfilling since he was unable to wear the uniform.

“I feel like I’m making a more direct contribution to the mission as we work together to deliver new technology faster to our warfighters,” Graves said.

AFRL’s Digital Hangar fits nicely into the mission of the Air Vehicle division where Graves works, which is to “Discover, develop, and deliver air vehicle technologies that revolutionize the capabilities of next generation air vehicles and affordably sustain and enhance the fleet.”

“We have a lot of really bright and talented people who are looking at defining how AFRL is going to digitally transform to meet some of the design challenges that we’re seeing going forward with many of our aerospace systems,” Graves said.

AFRL’s Digital Hangar continues to be developed and will eventually house high-value design information for digital representations of Air Force aerospace systems that will inform decision-making within AFRL and other stakeholder organizations.

The Digital Hangar is focused on the design and analysis phase of the acquisition life cycle, said Graves.

“It’s a lot cheaper to address problems or to look at physics-based questions through simulation as a project moves up the scale to ground testing or even a flight test, where it becomes more and more expensive.”

“We want to know what types of information we should be generating and using to make decisions during early design phases because that’s where a lot of the costs for an aircraft get locked in. We want to know what types of information we should be gathering over the life cycle of the airplane. The idea is to identify what data is worth keeping, and reuse that data.”

It’s a good idea to give decision makers the options to explore concept development through digital means rather than going all the way to flight tests, Graves said, adding, “To look at preliminary concepts in terms of transitioning technology is something we really like to look at as early as we can. This helps us transition our technology more efficiently.”

Graves said he and other researchers plan to add new aerospace systems to AFRL’s Digital Hangar strategically, based on a set of rigorous validation and verification criteria.

“We are taking a few candidate test cases and maturing those to see how it looks and is received. It really isn’t just a digital description of a model – it’s all the data that goes along with that model,” Graves said.  

With a background in sensitivity analysis and uncertainty quantification, Graves says he has long had interests in data science, data engineering, and machine learning. As a graduate student, he was employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and was exposed to uncertainties associated with forecasting weather events. He hopes to apply these concepts and required skill sets to benefit AFRL.

AFRL’s Digital Hangar is an exciting area for young professionals who are interested in working for AFRL, according to Graves.

“We are defining what the digital transformation for AFRL is going to look like in the next 10 years. This is a time for new ideas and new approaches.”

“We are looking at an area where we as scientists and engineers are trying to get the people who are accepting the technology we are developing to embrace more risk. The organizations we deliver technology to may be risk adverse. You want to get them much more comfortable with the risk that you are taking to deliver them the technology that they really want. That requires a lot of communication between the two parties,” Graves said.

Graves’ advice for people who may be interested in working at the lab: “Come to the lab and be prepared to take risks; you are going to make mistakes. Feel free to make mistakes and learn from them.”

“We bring students in and expose them to our modeling and simulation processes. Anyone who leaves our organization will have hands-on experience with developing the data that’s associated with the models that might go in our Digital Hangar.”

Lydia Pinsenschaum, the Digital Hangar’s first curator, will be a senior this coming school year and enjoys participating in the Leadership, Experience, Growing Apprenticeships Committed to Youth, or LEGACY program, which began in November 2016. The program was created to spark student interest in science, technology, engineering and math and in turn become part of the Air Force workforce.

Pinsenschaum, who is home schooled, has been working with Graves this summer to research digital curations organization benefits for the Digital Hangar as part of the LEGACY program, and said she has considered pursuing the aerospace engineering career field. She has a goal of attending the Air Force Academy with the ultimate goal of becoming a pilot.

“This summer I’ve been learning about digital curation. I had never heard of it before and now I know a whole lot more about it,” she said.

“For anyone that says, ‘I want to go to the Air Force Academy, I think it’s my job to help them get there because I wanted to go there when I was Lydia’s age. Supporting this type of ambition is very important to me,” Graves said.

To close out her summer, Pinsenschaum delivered her final presentation to a packed audience of AFRL scientists and engineers, including AFRL Digital Engineering leadership led by Michael Hanke, director of AFRL’s Research Collaboration and Computing Directorate. There have also been follow on requests for Pinsenschaum to brief other organizations at Wright-Patterson who are interested in digitally transforming.  Her research findings will be presented at an upcoming Digital Engineering Working Group Meeting hosted by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense.

To listen to Graves discuss AFRL’s Digital Hangar and the field of digital engineering, tune into AFRL’s “Lab Life” podcast at https://www.dvidshub.net/audio/59016/lab-life-episode-11-digital-hangar, or via Stitcher for Podcasts at https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/air-force-materiel-command/lab-life.

Digital Hangar is a trademark of the United States Air Force.