Roper: Space Force might conserve time and resources with digitally built satellites

One of America’s Air Force chief acquisition official, Will Roper, expects prospective aircraft, rockets, and satellites to be built entirely in virtual environments via computer-generated models. This criterion is how passenger planes and automotive are made, and it’s time for the army to do it this way too, Roper said. Barbara Barrett, the Air Force Secretary, last week disclosed that the next Air Force pilot simulator airplane would be the first entirely digitally designed “e-aircraft.” 

“We have two projects focused on what might be the pioneer e-sats for the department, possibly for the United States government,” Roper told reporters at a video conference on September 23. Working out how the task ahead for e-satellites “will take a bit longer than where we stand in line with aviation,” he said. The two projects that will act as test studies for satellites’ computerized design are confidential so that Roper could not reveal the identities or type of spaceship. However, he stated that if these techniques can execute successfully, military satellites’ costs could drastically decrease and the design built within a relatively short time than it currently takes.

Roper also said that the shift towards digital engineering would demand a significant change in military space programs’ culture and mechanisms for decades. Roper also claimed that many people in the DoD acquisition world don’t grasp what digital design implies. 

One justification for why e-satellites may not occur overnight is that they need adjustments throughout the whole supply chain. Today, each satellite program has scores of suppliers. “There’s no supply base; this is the first thing that shifts once you move to digital engineering.”

In an instance where virtual models were available to help construct, assemble and even run satellites, “in case my supply base cannot create parts that will fit with those models, particularly their tolerances, then I don’t have a digital thread.” 

Satellite Program Departments might have to create a digital thread and then collaborate with their contractors to satisfy the tolerances that their tools require, “said Roper. This venture will be a considerable departure from the conventional forms of constructing military satellites, Roper stated. For digital engineering to succeed, prototypes and technical specifications will have to be standardized.

Roper believes that digitally engineered airplanes will spare DoD billions of dollars from long-term renovation and maintenance, as virtual prototypes would be recycled to manufacture parts and components cheaply. Satellites will not have a logistics tail-like spacecraft. “ In this case, the primary return I look forward to getting from e-sats is a reduction in the learning curve and a general decrease in indirect and direct costs.