WASHINGTON — Digital twins for years have been hyped 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’re finally at this transition point, from being a buzzword and experiencing a lot of cynicism, to something that people see a real need for,” said Robbie Robertson, co-founder and CEO of Sedaro, a startup that develops digital engineering software 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 Defense Department and NASA, and has also raised venture capital. 

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

In the planning and designing of large satellite constellations, “when you connect the virtual and the physical, you can manage complexity to the degree that humans can’t manage it,” he said.

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

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

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

AI platform for digital engineering 

Military space programs also are 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, Istari’s founder and CEO, said the development of military aircraft, satellites and other systems could be made faster and cheaper if platforms could be designed, tested and even certified through modeling and simulation.

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

Istari’s 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 that the engineer is designing on. This would be a true digital thread, allowing engineers to constantly update and improve their designs with real-time data from the users.

A ‘true’ digital twin 

Robertson said customers often are overwhelmed by the marketing buzzwords and the multiple definitions of digital twin. The way he explains it is as a “a high-fidelity virtual representation of the physical system that exists throughout its entire lifecycle, up 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 is not just another overhyped trend. 

“A lot of people have been disappointed in where we are with digital engineering for space systems,” he said. That’s understandable, “since we haven’t used software to enable a dramatic improvement in the complexity and quality of hardware technologies.”

DoD satellite programs for years have relied on a messy combination of in-house and decades-old commercial software products to design their own digital twins. These legacy technologies, said Robertson, cannot be scaled to 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 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 didn’t specifically call for digital twins” but they are moving in that direction, said Robertson. “There’s a lot of knobs you can turn on what digital twins might mean for that particular organization.”

For DoD, having digital twins of operational satellites “is really the most exciting future application of this technology,” he said. 

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

“But the way that digital twins will primarily be used is for operations, simulating the system at really high fidelity so that you can optimize how you’re using it, find vulnerabilities from a military perspective and do predictive maintenance, which is how digital twins are used a lot in other industries.”

Digital engineering platforms, to be viable in the defense market, have to be interoperable environments, much 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, said Robertson.

What that actually means at the user level is still unclear, he said. “The leadership is saying we’re gonna be a digital service, but they’re relying on legacy providers of bespoke software tools.”

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

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

“There’s all these digital engineering ecosystems and toolsets getting stood up, including digital twin stuff,” said Robertson. “But there’s not a clear winner.”

Tough decisions lie ahead in this area, he said, “They’ve got all these overlapping, redundant efforts. So which one’s going to be the operational cloud ecosystem?”

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

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

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...