Jun 18 2020

Navy Explores Digital Twin Tech to Enhance Maintenance, Innovation

Digital twin technology can make the Navy more agile, on land and at sea.

The U.S. Navy’s technology has advanced significantly over the history of the service branch, with ships getting larger and more sophisticated over time, and submarines and aircraft carriers joining the fleet. Now, the Navy is pushing ahead with a technology surge that it hopes will help both improve fleet maintenance and get innovative IT solutions onto ships faster.

The Navy is in the early stages of using digital twin technology to accomplish both of those aims. A digital twin is a digital or virtual model of a real-world object that replicates its performance, allowing the creator of the digital twin to determine where the asset — such as a ship, a ship component or a computer system onboard a vessel — performs well and where it performs poorly. 

Digital twins create virtual replicas and allow agencies to understand what the product or process is designed to do, how to build it from an initial production standpoint and how to maintain it over its lifecycle. 

Importantly, digital twins can also be used to test systems without having to board a physical ship. That is probably the largest benefit of the technology to the Navy. 

Navy Looks to Digital Twin Tech for Help on Maintenance

Maintenance is a critical component of any service branch’s operations, but it is even more so for the Navy, since its ships can travel hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles from docks where they can be fixed. 

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Port Hueneme, Calif., has been exploring how to combine unmanned aerial systems and digital twin technology for maintenance, according to Defense Systems

The idea is that Navy engineers could use the digital twin to “identify damage, corrosion and alignment issues faster and be more proactive on the maintenance when the ship comes into port,” Defense Systems reports. 

Such inspections in the past had been conducted only when a ship was docked in port. However, data collected via drones can then be sent back and forth between Navy engineers on ships and at bases on shore to highlight areas that need inspection. Digital twin technology also allows the Navy to ensure that the appropriate people and tools are ready for maintenance tasks when a ship does come to port, Defense Systems reports. 

Navy digital twin

Fran White, left, a civil service employee at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, Systems Center Atlantic, and Clayton Bush, a Tactical Networks contractor, work with Petty Officer 2nd Class James Rago to troubleshoot the video teleconference system of a video information exchange system aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt

Alan Jaeger, the applications manager of the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Office of Research and Technology, says in a statement that the Navy’s ability as in-service engineers to support the fleet “currently requires extensive on-site personnel in order to identify configuration, damage, corrosion and other mechanical issues,”

“The concept of a ‘digital twin’ or as-built models of surface ships provides extensive opportunities to better serve the fleet,” he says. “Imagine being able to not only collect valuable information without placing maintenance personnel in potentially hazardous situations, but to also do it with the ship underway while obtaining better and more accurate data in the process.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how federal IT leaders can adapt to accelerating technological change.

Digital Twin Tools Can Speed Delivery of Innovations

Meanwhile, the Navy has started to use digital twins to test IT systems that can be used on ships, starting with the ships in the USS Theodore Roosevelt strike group, according to Federal News Network

Developers will be able to use them to build and pilot new technologies and applications and get them deployed to ships faster without compromising critical systems onboard physical ships. 

“We can catch all the problems before they ever hit a piece of hardware,” Robert Parker, the technical director in the Navy’s program executive office for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, tells Federal News Network. “We’re trying to push testing and development as far to the left as possible. We want to build a model from day one that encapsulates all the interfaces, all the data exchanges, all the messages. So, before you write a single line of code, you can check to see if you have the applications laid out correctly.”

The Navy foresees its digital twins operating in a commercial cloud environment, dramatically expanding the number of users who could develop software for Navy systems.

“One of the benefits of cloud is the ease of access — it’s ubiquitous,” Delores Washburn, the chief engineer at Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, tells Federal News Network. “We’ve been able to architect it in a secure way where we can let our contractors, the performers, and even the government workforce, all have access to the same development environment. We have folks all across the United States accessing it to do development now.”

However, that vision is still not a practical reality for the Navy. Historically, Navy applications were developed in siloes and were not interoperable with others. That is starting to change as the Navy is moving toward containerization of apps, according to Federal News Network. By leveraging a Platform as a Service cloud model, the digital twin can access the same IT environment operating on the strike group’s vessels.

“When we go have a big ship maintenance availability and we do our software installs, we’re not done,” Washburn says. “If there’s some new game-changing technology, we can now push that update out there to the ships in the strike group just as seamlessly as you would on your smartphone, because those building blocks are all there.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Arthurgw, U.S. 3rd Fleet Copyright, U.S. Navy/Public Domain

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