In late September, Wichita State University was announced as one of 13 vendors eligible for up $400 million in funding for the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg Vanguard Program, an effort to digitally design and rapidly field a family of affordable, reusable, attritable autonomous unmanned aircraft systems capable of teaming with manned aircraft for a range of missions, possibly as soon as 2023.
Defense stalwarts including Boeing
The answer is wrapped up in the digital design, engineering, test and manufacturing process knowledge of Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), an R&D and manufacturing organization within the university that boasts a remarkable 800-strong staff, half of whom are graduate and undergraduate students.
Dr. John Tomblin is NIAR’s executive director. He told me that Wichita State University is “out of place in the broader university system” based on the amount of work it does with the defense industry.
Tomblin says the National Science Foundation ranked NIAR fourth in a 2018 comparison of who does the most aerospace R&D among U.S. industry and government, surprising even those who follow the defense industry. He adds that if government activity is factored out, Wichita State is the Defense Department’s number one university partner in aerospace research by a factor of three.
“We sign non-disclosures, we work on projects and we get parts onto aircraft,” Tomblin explains.
When asked what kind of work the NIAR/Spirit AeroSystems team will be doing for the Skyborg program Tomblin wouldn’t offer details.
“I have not been given a task on Skyborg yet,” he says. “We have a set of skills that we bring. The other vendors bring skills sets as well. I think the beauty of what the Air Force has done with this program is combining these skill sets.”
Tomblin’s reference to NIAR’s skill set alludes to its growing expertise in designing, engineering and testing aircraft and planning for their manufacture and sustainment in a virtual world before they ever actually take to the sky.
That dovetails well with Air Force’s current focus on compressing the time it takes to design, develop and field weapons, recently championed by Dr. Will Roper, the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
This appears to be the role the NIAR/Spirit AeroSystems team will play in the Skyborg program, accelerating development and manufacturing through digital engineering. As you read this, NIAR is already at work on keeping an aging Air Force bomber flying by digitally recreating it.
Flying a Real B-1 in a Virtual World
“I’m the owner of a B-1 bomber now,” Tomblin says, referring to the retired Boeing B-1B Lancer NIAR obtained from the Air Force for a project sponsored by the service’s Life Cycle Management Center B1 Division. “We’re fully disassembling it, digitally scanning it, comparing that with the [design] drawings and then basically rebuilding the bomber in a digital format.”
Creating a digital twin of the real B-1B will enable NIAR staff to fly it virtually, monitoring its structure to assess the cumulative effect of aerodynamic stresses that wear out components on the real bomber. Rather than pouring over design drawings dating back to the 1980s, engineers will be able to don virtual reality goggles to see how parts fit together inside the B-1 in 3 dimensions.
They can then recreate out-of-production parts or design new parts for the 34 year old bomber. Data gathered flying the virtual aircraft can help the Air Force rapidly reevaluate the design life of a bomber which could still be in service in 2040.
NAIR’s ability to render a digital copy of the B-1B suggests it can also create rapidly reconfigurable digital prototypes for Skyborg. This design speed/efficiency paired with expertise in laying out digital manufacturing processes is what got the Air Force’s attention Tomblin says.
Though Tomblin won’t reveal exactly how NIAR and Spirit AeroSystems will operate as a Skyborg vendor team, it’s logical to assume that their chief role will be in pushing the envelope of digital manufacturing.
A Virtual Factory
It’s likely that Spirit AeroSystems will translate digital manufacturing into building physical components for Skyborg platforms as it does for the prime contractors it works with now.
NIAR “has invested $30 million in advanced manufacturing equipment” over the last two years Tomblin says, helping aerospace manufacturers learn how digital prototyping and manufacturing can enable rapid production of parts and entire vehicles. Thermoplastics haven’t been used in aerospace before he notes because the techniques required to use them in manufacturing are complex and costly. But with digital manufacturing processes they could they be made cost effectively and in volume.
Before building production aircraft in a real factory, NIAR can take costs and time out of the process with digital “pre-processes”, Tomblin says. “The first 50 to 100 aircraft in a production typically cost a lot. So we do that virtually. I can set up a whole virtual factory.”
Asked what that would look like Tomblin replies, “I guess you’d have to see it.”