The Space Sector’s Digital Launch: New Emphasis on Cutting-Edge Technologies Is Transforming Aerospace

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Once the avatar of technological innovation and achievement, today the space sector is itself under disruption as it adapts to the tech-driven digital revolution that has already transformed legacy industries such as manufacturing to vacation rentals. Now digitalization’s foundational tools, including robotics, additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), augmented reality, and big data analytics, are reshaping the space business and spurring a new era of advancement.

The sector’s retrograde trajectory was a legacy of its space race development model, when government entities alone had the resources to conquer space, and spent lavishly pushing technology’s boundaries to achieve their ends. Launch platform programs had long development cycles, developers were risk averse, and commercial needs and applications were unimportant. A realization that private enterprise could develop launch systems more economically while creating beneficial commercial markets began to take hold early this century in the U.S. and Europe, dovetailing with the digital technology advances that were beginning to transform other industrial sectors.

It’s not coincidental that space business titans Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, founders of Blue Origin and SpaceX respectively, made their original fortunes with disruptive online technologies (Amazon and PayPal).

"The space industry is rapidly evolving,” consulting firm Frost & Sullivan declared in a research report last year, citing rising competition in the launch services market and a coming generation of constellation-based satellite networks “poised to disrupt the connectivity and the earth observation market" among the evidence.

In a 2019 “Space industry perspective” analysis of tech trends, Deloitte labeled once exotic satellite based remote sensing products — among a growing legion of downstream data analysis applications — and low cost launches as “the new normal.”

Growth opportunities appear vast. Financial services company Jefferies estimated heavy lift launch revenues in 2018 at $8 billion, and Frost and Sullivan forecasts such revenues from 2019 to 2030 to exceed $102 billion, in addition to $366 billion in spending for the global satellite manufacturing sector.

The legacy aerospace companies, which have been broadening their defense-based reach into the cosmos in response to the burgeoning private market, have been ardent adapters.

Under its “Digital Transformation” program, Lockheed Martin has created a “digital tapestry” environment, supported by state-of-the-art information technologies and advanced manufacturing techniques, including 3D modeling, virtual reality simulation, big data analytics, additive manufacturing, and automated inspection and testing. The digital tapestry enables Lockheed to design and produce parts and systems “that would literally be impossible to build using traditional design and manufacturing techniques,” according to the company.

Boeing, whose space products in development include NASA’s Space Launch System for lunar orbital missions, is using digital data across all its aerospace businesses, spanning program development phases from initial design to recycling. Boeing’s new T-X military trainer for example, developed in partnership with Saab, was designed in a model-based environment enabled by a “digital thread.” Meanwhile, the company is integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic systems, using advances in machine learning to enable robots to perform autonomous precision assembly, and drones to conduct autonomous inspections.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA; a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture) is readying its Vulcan Centaur rocket system for a first flight next year as it vies for lucrative launch contracts for the new United States Space Force, established last December. ULA is using technologies including additive manufacturing, circumferential friction stir welding, and out-of-autoclave composite curing to help boost its manufacturing capacity to 20 of the rockets per year. Vulcan’s composite payload fairing is the first made in the U.S. by this curing process.

Northrop Grumman, after buying launch company Orbital ATK in 2018 to bolster its own space business prospects, established an innovation division “in the hopes of further driving the creation of new, cutting edge technologies,” the company said. That division was rolled into the company’s newly organized Space Systems Group this year.

Among current trends driving further innovation: integration of computer vision, voice recognition technology, advanced augmented reality and other digital technologies to transform human-machine interactions; the development of “mega constellations” of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide advanced global connectivity; and AI and blockchain to provide security and management solutions for the avalanche of data the space business produces.

Recognition of the new digital reality is widespread. In a recent “Destination Digital” report, Accenture found that 76% of aerospace and defense executives believe digital opens the door to new market opportunities for unmet customer needs. Indeed, without digital adaptation, survival in the space sector seems as tenuous as survival in space itself.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

James Wynbrandt

Author and journalist James Wynbrandt frequently writes about aviation and aerospace. A multi-engine instrument rated pilot, he has flown his Mooney M20K on assignments throughout North and Central America, and his work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Barron’s and Forbes. He lives in New York City.

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