LITTLETON, Colo. — Aerospace engineers are turning to virtual reality, traditionally the domain of Hollywood and the video game industry, to help build and design the next generation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites.
The unlikely pairing has saved the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colo., months of engineering time and countless dollars by preventing costly mistakes before they are made, said Keoki Jackson, the company’s vice president of navigation systems.
The GPS 3 satellites are expected be more accurate and less vulnerable to jamming than preceding generations of GPS craft. Lockheed Martin is building up to 32 satellites for the program under a prime contract awarded in 2008.
GPS 3 is the first Lockheed Martin program to use virtual reality technology from cradle to grave.
Other Lockheed Martin satellite programs, such as the Space Based Infrared System for missile warning and previous-generation GPS constellations, have taken advantage of virtual reality labs, but never so early in the development stage as with GPS 3.
During a tour of facilities for reporters April 8, Lockheed Martin officials showed off a laboratory here they called the CHIL, short for Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory, and accompanying software.
The room allows engineers to use virtual reality to see how pieces of a satellite fit together and what type of difficulties they may run into while during assembly.
Engineers don oversize glasses and other gear dotted with what look like miniature ping-pong balls and oversize video game controllers. The equipment creates an animated display of the worker who moves in sync with the avatar on the screen. Observers can watch both the worker and his or her avatar on a nearby screen.
Others watching the simulation can detect the worker in uncomfortable or untenable positions and find ways to make the actual physical process of building the satellite easier. More importantly, it allows them to make changes when the cost for such fixes is still relatively low.
Lockheed Martin executives pointed to a series of improvements including reducing the distance the satellite must travel by 60 percent and reducing the total number of times the satellite is moved by 40 percent.
“You find all your kinks,” Jackson said.
Lockheed Martin is under firm contract for the first four GPS 3 satellites and has been authorized to begin work on the next four. The Air Force in January signaled its intent to procure GPS 3 satellites nine through 20 from Lockheed Martin on a sole-source basis.
The first GPS 3 satellite is slated for launch in 2015, which is about a year behind the original schedule. But Lockheed Martin officials say the program is nonetheless 18 months ahead of where they were five years into the GPS 2R program, the previous generation of navigation satellites built by the company.
They attribute much of that time savings to the use of virtual reality technology.
Jackson said production insights gained through the use of the technology led the company to change the order in which the satellites are assembled, helped determine whether there was enough floor space for a specific task, and aided in finding ways to limit radiofrequency limits among satellite components.
Virtual reality also has enabled Lockheed Martin to avoid building expensive prototypes. The first satellite in the program was planned from the start to be a nonflight engineering model.
Jackson said virtual reality is now used on a weekly basis on the program. Next year, they expect to try to expand the technology further.