Digital twins have gained significant attention in the space industry as a promising technology for designing complex satellite networks. Although the technology is still evolving, companies specializing in this sector are witnessing an increasing demand for digital engineering tools.
Sedaro, a startup based in Arlington, Virginia, is among the companies at the forefront of developing digital engineering software specifically for space systems. Founded in 2016, Sedaro has received approximately $3 million in small business research awards from the Defense Department and NASA. The company has also attracted venture capital funding.
According to Robbie Robertson, the co-founder and CEO of Sedaro, the scale and complexity of satellite constellations make digital twins a necessity. However, he noted that in some cases, legacy digital design tools have been rebranded as digital twins, causing confusion, especially in military programs. Robertson emphasized the potential of digital twins to manage complexity in the planning and design of large satellite constellations, enabling a level of management that surpasses human capabilities.
The adoption of digital twins is gaining momentum in military satellite programs as the Department of Defense (DoD) plans for the next generation of space systems. Sedaro’s digital engineering software has found utility in the Pentagon’s requirements organization, which is responsible for overseeing major systems acquisitions. By employing a digital twin of a missile-tracking satellite network, decision-makers can fine-tune requirements before procuring the actual satellites.
Additionally, the U.S. Space Force is utilizing a digital twin to facilitate the planning of an experiment called Tetra 5, which aims to refuel satellites in orbit. In this case, the program necessitates the delivery of a digital twin alongside the physical system, showcasing the importance of incorporating digital twins in space-related initiatives.
Istari, a digital engineering startup, has gained the attention of military space programs with its innovative approach. The company is backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and led by former Pentagon procurement official Will Roper. Roper believes that the development of military aircraft, satellites, and other systems could be accelerated and made more cost-effective by utilizing modeling and simulation for design, testing, and certification processes.
Currently, the lack of integration among various models and simulations used by different contractors in military procurement programs hinders efficiency. Istari aims to address this challenge by offering an AI platform that serves as a common operating system for models and simulations. This approach allows for seamless integration and interoperability, enabling any model to be utilized regardless of its ownership.
The Space Force stands to benefit greatly from this technology. For instance, satellite operators and engineers would be able to train on the same model, creating a true digital thread. This would enable engineers to continually update and improve their designs with real-time data from users, fostering a more efficient and collaborative design process.
Robbie Robertson emphasizes the importance of clarifying the concept of digital twins to customers who may be overwhelmed by the marketing buzzwords and varying definitions. He defines a digital twin as a high-fidelity virtual representation of a physical system that remains synchronized with its real-world counterpart throughout its entire lifecycle.
Sedaro, recognizing the skepticism surrounding digital engineering, launched an updated version of its cloud-based digital engineering tool in April. The company aims to demonstrate that digital engineering is not merely an overhyped trend but a valuable technology with practical applications.
Robertson acknowledges that many people have been disappointed with the current state of digital engineering for space systems. This disappointment stems from the lack of significant improvements in the complexity and quality of hardware technologies enabled by software tools.
In the realm of DoD satellite programs, a combination of in-house and outdated commercial software products has traditionally been used to develop digital twins. However, these legacy technologies are ill-equipped to handle the scale and complexity of future military satellite constellations, including those planned by the Space Development Agency for low Earth orbit architecture.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) is requesting digital representations of communications satellites from contractors in its latest solicitation. While the agency has not explicitly called for digital twins, Robertson notes that they are moving in that direction. The concept of digital twins can be customized to meet the specific needs and goals of each organization.
Robertson believes that the most exciting future application of digital twins for the Department of Defense (DoD) is to have digital twins of operational satellites. Traditionally, engineering simulations are seen as design tools used before the physical system is created. However, the primary use of digital twins will be in operations, where they can simulate systems at a high fidelity to optimize their utilization, identify vulnerabilities from a military perspective, and enable predictive maintenance. This aligns with the widespread use of digital twins in other industries.