Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) are poised to become a leading-edge capability for the Navy in potentially contested environments in the Western Pacific. As this unfolds, China will likely respond by aggressively introducing new methods and solutions to blunt the UMS’ effectiveness. The Navy will then need to introduce even more advanced sensors, analytics and other technologies – which the Chinese in turn will seek to counter as quickly as they can.
The result may be a supercharged, ongoing technology race between the Navy’s unmanned capabilities and China’s countermeasures. If the Navy is to win that race, it is crucial that new capabilities be developed and fielded with digital engineering—but not the way digital engineering for the Navy is commonly practiced today. A new approach is needed, one that takes digital engineering out of the mostly exclusive realm of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and makes it more open to the Navy, and to a wider range of industry and other partners.
The Problem: Limited Insight Into Design Data
Currently, most digital engineering practiced for major Navy programs of record and other projects is conducted by OEMs in their own digital environments. Because these environments are largely closed, the Navy lacks real-time insight into the design data. The OEMs typically do their design work in their own digital environments, and then extract limited data points and present them to the Navy in contractual artifacts like spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and pdf files. These artifacts are usually delivered only at major milestone design reviews.
This makes it difficult for the Navy to flag problems or gain detailed insight before a design goes to testing. Not only does the Navy have to wait until the end of a design phase to obtain the artifacts, the artifacts themselves may not have all the data Navy engineers need to fully evaluate and influence the design. This often results in extensive rework and other delays. Much of the speed that digital engineering offers the Navy is simply lost.
Closed OEM digital environments also hamper the ability of the Navy to tap innovation within the wider technology development community. Other providers normally have limited access to the information they might need—including design and configuration data, system architectures and key interfaces—to determine whether they might possess new solutions to offer the Navy. While some of this information may be contained in legacy documents, it could take weeks or months to sort out—and even then it might not be enough. Here again, the Navy loses out on the potential of digital engineering.
Shared Digital Engineering Environments
If the Navy is to take full advantage of digital engineering for unmanned systems, the design work needs to be conducted in common, or shared digital environments. Shared digital environments can take several different forms, but in essence they provide multiple parties with common access to design data. They might be sponsored or managed by the Navy, by OEMs, or by other entities. The Navy is already moving toward shared digital environments, and now has the opportunity to build on that progress.
In a shared digital environment, the Navy can see the same design data the OEM is working with, and so can spot potential problems in real time, without needing to refer to artifacts at a later date. For example, if an OEM is developing a new side-scan sonar for an unmanned underwater vehicle, the Navy can provide much faster review, analysis and feedback across the entire lifecycle of the design—all of which would help get the sonar integrated, tested and fielded more rapidly.
Opening up digital engineering environments also fosters competition and innovation, by bringing in the wider community of technology providers, including academia and non-traditional defense contractors. Shared digital environments give providers earlier and deeper insight into what the Navy needs. And the more providers that can look at the problem, the greater chance that one of them will say, “We know how to solve it.”
More Open Architectures, Less Vendor-Lock
One of the keys to rapid technology insertion in unmanned systems is the ability to plug-and-play the best new technologies from across the provider community. This requires open architectures, so that any provider can build solutions that will seamlessly integrate with current systems. Shared digital engineering environments do much to encourage these open architectures. That’s because shared environments aren’t effective unless the architectures let everyone in. Shared digital engineering environments and open architectures go hand-in-hand; each promotes the other.
At the same time, this approach substantially reduces vendor-lock. When other providers have direct insight into design data—rather than just legacy documents—the Navy is less dependent on the OEMs for system updates and upgrades. And with open architectures, the Navy is no longer locked into an OEM’s proprietary approaches. Naturally, all of this must occur under appropriate levels of cybersecurity to prevent intrusions, manipulations, and theft of cutting-edge technical data—even as we reap the benefits of open architectures.
Faster Adoption Of Digital Engineering
Shared digital environments are the key to digital engineering not only for emerging platforms such as unmanned systems, but also for the Navy’s transformational technologies for critical priorities, including Project Overmatch. Shared digital environments speed this wider. adoption of digital engineering.
Currently, each OEM typically has its own set of digital engineering tools and techniques, which are often not compatible with others. Common digital environments encourage common approaches, making it easier. for the Navy to take digital engineering out of isolated pockets, and scale it across any number of projects.
Building On The Navy’s Progress
The Navy is already moving toward shared digital environments. One example is the planned Rapid Autonomy. Integration Laboratory (RAIL), which will test new autonomous capabilities for unmanned maritime vehicles. Another example is The Forge, where the Navy can rapidly develop, test and distribute software upgrades to the Aegis and the Ship Self-Defense. System (SSDS) platforms.
Both RAIL and The Forge are Navy sponsored shared digital environments. This model of government-industry collaboration gives the Navy full. access to the digital environments, and taps the innovation of the wider community of technology providers.
By building on the successes of these and other shared digital environments, the Navy has the opportunity to unlock the full power of digital engineering for unmanned vehicles on the leading edge in the Pacific, and for initiatives across the Navy.
BRIAN ABBE ([email protected]) is the client service officer for Booz Allen’s Navy/Marine Corps business. He leads the development of solutions and technologies for the Navy and Marine Corps in areas such as unmanned systems; information warfare; biometrics; antitamper; air traffic control; position, navigation, and timing; augmented reality/virtual reality; and fabrication and prototyping.
COMMANDER ERIC BILLIES ([email protected]) a retired surface warfare officer, leads Booz Allen’s
business in the Pacific Northwest helping Navy clients chart innovative approaches for USV/UUV employment, and driving immersive tech (VR/AR/XR) across Booz Allen’s Global Defense Group.
MIKE LAPIERRE ([email protected]) is a senior systems engineer at Booz Allen specializing in
developmental engineering and platform HW/SW integration using MBSE and digital engineering-based