Digital twins are gaining traction in military satellite programs

By | June 5, 2023

WASHINGTON Digital twins have for years been touted as the next big thing in the space industry. While the technology is still evolving, companies in this sector see a growing demand for digital engineering tools to design complex satellite networks.

We are finally at this transition point, from being a buzzword and experiencing a lot of cynicism, to something people see a real need for, said Robbie Robertson, co-founder and CEO of Sedaro, a software development startup of digital engineering focused on space systems.

The company, based in Arlington, Virginia, was founded in 2016. It has won nearly $3 million in small business research awards from the Department of Defense and NASA, and has also raised venture capital.

The scale and complexity of satellite constellations make digital twins a necessity, Robertson said. The problem, especially for military programs, is that legacy digital design tools have been sold as digital twins, she said.

In planning and designing large satellite constellations, when you connect the virtual and the physical, you can handle complexity to an extent that humans can’t handle it, he said.

Digital twins are gaining traction in military satellite programs as the Department of Defense plans the next generation of space systems, Robertson said.

Sedaros software, he said, is used by the Pentagon’s requirements organization that oversees major systems acquisitions. A digital twin to a missile tracking satellite network, for example, helps decision makers tweak requirements before acquiring satellites.

The Space Force is using a digital twin to plan an experiment called Tetra 5, to refuel orbiting satellites. This is an example of a program that requires a digital twin to be delivered along with the physical system, Robertson said.

AI platform for digital engineering

Military space programs are also target customers for a digital engineering startup called Istari, backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and run by former Pentagon procurement official Will Roper.

Roper, founder and CEO of Istaris, said the development of military aircraft, satellites and other systems could be made faster and cheaper if the platforms could be designed, tested and even certified through modeling and simulation.

That’s not possible today, he said, as military procurement programs are based on a hodgepodge of models and simulations from different contractors that don’t play together in an integrated digital environment.

The Istaris AI platform would serve as a common operating system for models and simulations. The idea is to allow any model to plug and play regardless of who owns them.

The Space Force could really benefit from this technology, Roper said. A satellite operator, for example, would train on the same model the engineer is designing on. This would be a true digital thread, allowing engineers to constantly update and improve their designs with real-time user data.

A true digital twin

Robertson said customers are often overwhelmed by marketing buzzwords and multiple definitions of a digital twin. The way you explain it is like a high-fidelity virtual representation of the physical system that exists throughout its life cycle, to the point where the behavior of the orbiting system and its twin are perfectly synchronized.

Sedaro in April launched an updated version of its cloud-based digital engineering tool that it hopes will convince skeptics that the technology isn’t just another overhyped trend.

Many people have been disappointed with where we are with digital engineering for space systems, he said. This is understandable, since we have not used software to enable a dramatic improvement in the complexity and quality of hardware technologies.

DoD satellite programs have for years relied on a messy mix of decades-old and domestic commercial software products to design their digital twins. These legacy technologies, Robertson said, cannot be retrofitted into the large satellite constellations the military is planning for the future, such as the Space Development Agency’s low-Earth orbit architecture.

Digital engineering to plan the constellation

In its latest solicitation for communications satellites, the Space Development Agency is asking contractors to submit digital representations of their satellites so the agency can build models. They haven’t specifically called for digital twins, but they’re moving in that direction, Robertson said. There are many knobs you can turn on what digital twins might mean for that particular organization.

For DoD, having operational satellite digital twins is truly the most exciting future application of this technology, he said.

Traditionally people think of an engineering simulation as a design tool before they have hardware, before they have a physical system, he added.

But the way digital twins will primarily be used is for operations, simulating the system at very high fidelity so that we can optimize how you use it, find vulnerabilities from a military perspective, and perform predictive maintenance, which is the way digital twins are used a lot in other industries.

Digital engineering platforms, to be viable in the defense market, need to be interoperable environments, just like the Internet, so DoD is not dependent on a single vendor, he said. Organizations like SDA that buy satellites from different manufacturers don’t want to have to pay millions of dollars for incompatible models and software tools.

Within the Space Force, there is a push to introduce digital technologies into every aspect of their operations, and that will include digital engineering, Robertson said.

What that actually means at the user level isn’t yet clear, he said. Leadership is saying we will be a digital service, but they are relying on legacy vendors of bespoke software tools.

Artist’s concept of the Space Digital Ecosystem and Integration platform. Credit: Space Systems Command

Under a new program called the National Space Test and Training Complex, the Space Force will seek industry proposals on a number of technologies, including digital engineering.

There are all these digital engineering ecosystems and toolsets standing up, including the digital twin stuff, Robertson said. But there is no clear winner.

We have tough decisions ahead in this area, he said, they have all these overlapping and redundant efforts. So what will the operational cloud ecosystem look like?

Space Systems Command in April announced plans to launch a digital engineering ecosystem platform to help the US Space Force and its mission partners stay ahead of threats.

The digital platform, expected to be completed in 2025, will help integrate existing digital engineering efforts into the USSF ecosystem.

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