The accelerating move of network-centric operations from concept to execution is driving the need to develop new tools for network-enabled engineering

After years of hype, net-centric thinking is taking a firm grip on the aerospace industry. As companies work to turn their cool demonstrations into solid engineering, they are discovering they must become network-enabled businesses if they want to develop network-centric systems.

Working in a networked environment is becoming an everyday event for engineers. At Boeing, sites as far apart as Anaheim, Seattle, St Louis, Mesa and Philadelphia are linked by dedicated laboratory network, LabNet, that provides the high bandwidth and low latency required to support distributed real-time simulations. Started as a way to link a few laboratories and demonstration sites to enable collaborative simulations, LabNet has become a mechanism for integrating the company. Now LabNet is being evolved from a means of providing real-time connectivity into a system-of-systems engineering tool able to replicate the real-world links on which network-centric operations depend. The evolution of LabNet from demonstration to development tool is echoed across the industry as companies get to grips with the unprecedented complexity of developing systems of systems.

The result is an increasing reliance on modelling, simulation and analysis – performed collaboratively over networks that link the different company, partner and customer sites - which is driving companies to restructure their engineering and business processes along network-centric lines.

Boeing's vision is of a system-of-systems simulated environment resident in the company into which programmes can plug their designs to assess their performance –"a single environment that supports multiple scenarios and multiple, even mobile, portals for testing, evaluation and experiments," says Guy Higgins, vice-president of Boeing's new Analysis, Modelling & Simulation business unit. To that end, Boeing is developing tools to enable programmes to build models that plug into the environment.

Tool developers

Developing the tools for net-centric system-of-systems engineering is the responsibility of Boeing's Phantom Works research organisation, under its "NCO Thrust". These include tools for "front end" requirements generation and "back end" technology demonstration, as well as technology to enable the creation and protection of wireless, mobile, ad hoc broadband networks "out to the tactical edge".

Programmes under the NCO Thrust include developing modelling, simulation and analysis tools to enable a collaborative, immersive environment for system design and evaluation, says Christi Scott, programme manager, modelling and simulation. The goal is to develop a core set of tools enabling constructive and virtual entities and live assets to connect and run in a simulated environment.

"The shift in emphasis from platforms and individual systems to systems of systems makes it so expensive to link everything to together," says Scott. "Modelling and simulation is becoming important to demonstrating the operational and business benefits, and engaging the customer." Tools are being developed to enable simulation to be used throughout the product development cycle "from the glimmer in the eye", says Higgins.

Desktop tools are being developed to allow rapid simulation and visualisation of net-centric systems for concept development, investment analysis and customer interaction, says Scott. Other tools focus on information flow, looking for bottlenecks and latencies. These are equivalent to the computational fluid-dynamics and finite-element tools used by aircraft designers.

Projects under way include the development of an environment for large simulations involving tens of thousands of entities. Tools include Dial-A-Vehicle, which provides a library of body templates, such as a 737, that can be quickly tailored by plugging in characteristics. Another tool allows digital entities such as threats to learn and adapt their behaviour so simulations cannot be "gamed".

These tools are being deployed across Boeing, including at the Virtual Warfare Center in St Louis. The centre can create a virtual theatre air battle with thousands of entities, and put operators from across the company into the loop at various levels, from pilots to commanders. "We were restricted in the number of six degree-of-freedom air breathers we could fly, but we have broached that limit – we will have 1,000 by June, 2,000 by November," says Bob Schraeder, centre manager.

With many more entities interconnected, and the customer looking at capabilities rather than platforms, operating concepts have become harder to anticipate and define. "Large numbers stress the operators and the networks," says Schraeder. "When operators have to handle 200-300 threats at a time in an air-defence scenario it increases the complexity of the environment and you get a different adaptation."

Newly revamped, the Virtual Warfare Center "does what flight simulators do, on a large scale", says Schraeder. There are manned interface crew stations for F-15, F/A-22 and F/A-18 fighters, E-3 and E-8 surveillance aircraft, UAVs and Patriot missile batteries. Intelligent software agents – "digital fighter pilots" – run the rest of the entities. Any Boeing site can plug into the virtual air battle via LabNet.

To provide a deadline for developing new technologies, and a focus for research efforts across the company, Boeing has launched annual network-centric demonstrations. The first, in November 2003, focused on a time-critical targeting cell and involved mainly virtual assets. The second, in December, was more complex, involving more platforms and sites, says Don Winter, director, NCO Thrust.

The 2003 exercise demonstrated "guardian agent" software enabling network communications by translating Link 16 tactical-datalink messages to internet protocol format, says Jim Shaw, programme manager. The 2004 demonstration added distributed data-fusion technology enabling everyone on the network to share a common operating picture. Both technologies are expected to the ready for deployment by the next demonstration, says Winter.

The December demonstration involved three simultaneous scenarios: time-critical targeting with a simulated E-3 and real F/A-18F; airborne electronic attack with a real B-52 and simulated EA-18G; and ground attack scenario with simulated AH-64s and a B-1. Connexion by Boeing's 737 acted as a "smart tanker", relaying health and status data from all participants via broadband satellite communications.

The annual demonstrations help hone techniques for the test and evaluation of net-centric systems. "We need the infrastructure, processes and skills to develop and test systems of systems, where some elements are only available as simulations or emulations," says Conrad Ball, director, enterprise test laboratories and technologies. "LabNet is the enabling infrastructure to bring modelling, simulation and analysis capabilities together. The engineering processes behind the infrastructure take the data, learn from it, and ensure performance."

Traditional test and evaluation disciplines such as configuration control are being transitioned to the net-centric domain, says Ball. These include "electronic proving ground" tools that allow simulations to be instrumented to collect data to support analysis. "We take time when constructing a large-scale simulation to instrument the communication paths, which is important for system-of-systems testing," he says.

With modelling and simulation supporting all phases of product development, models and simulations can now "flow through" from early demonstration to engineering development, testing and training, gaining fidelity and maturity along the way. "If we can build an understanding over time of the capability of a model, it adds credibility to the customer's understanding of what goes on behind the curtains," Ball says.

Accrediting simulations for particular applications is the concept behind Boeing's Joint Virtual Testbed, a framework for defining all the components needed to build a large simulation for test and evaluation. "We capture the configuration of an entity, and data on how it was used and how it performed. When a new opportunity comes along, engineers can pull an entity from a catalogue and know how it performed in the past," says Ball.

Emphasising the shift to experimentation, while displaying a distinctly different approach, is Lockheed Martin's Center for Innovation, which opens for business next month. Located in Suffolk in southern Virginia, the purpose-designed facility brings together experimentation, analysis and visualisation capabilities to allow rapid prototyping of net-centric solutions to operational problems.

Experimental shift

The building has six reconfigurable sectors that are physically independent, but electronically networked. "We can run coalition operations under NATO security in one sector, Department of Defense classified operations in another," says Buck Marr, vice-president for the centre, which is connected to 28 other laboratories – a number projected to grow to 44  via Lockheed's high-bandwidth Global Vision network.

Each sector is working on a network-centric theme – such as persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance focused logistics, missile defence or homeland security – by bringing together people from across Lockheed's business units. "One sector has 13 programmes and 33 independent R&D activities," says Marr, adding: "The centre will enable better horizontal integration across the company."

Lockheed sees benefits in bringing its prototyping, experimentation and analysis capabilities together in one place, located in the "hotbed" of the US military's net-centric activities. "It is magic to go down there and see all the people collaborating," says Stan Sloane, executive vice-president, Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems & Solutions. "Get people together and they really produce synergies."

The centre provides a laboratory-like environment for concept development and rapid prototyping, after which ideas will move out to the business units as development programmes, says Marr. Initially there are five sectors: one for sensitive programmes, three for unclassified and one a 92-seat auditorium. A sixth sector, a reconfigurable operations centre, will be added by early next year.

There is also a testbed for the DoD's Global Information Grid – the first within industry, Lockheed says – allowing systems testing in a simulated environment that emulates real constraints on network-centric operations, such as multi-level security. "This is for real experiments," says Doug Barton, director, network-centric programmes.

Complex dynamics

Experimentation is becoming key as net-centric operations move from theory to practice. "When there are lots of people doing decision-making in the loop, the dynamics get very complex," says Peter Shaw, Northrop Grumman's director, cyber-warfare integration. "We build cockpit simulators to understand how an aircraft flies. When we move to systems of systems, we need to do qualitative experiments, to change things and see how it changes what the warfighter does."

To enable net-centric experimentation and development, Northrop has created the Cyber Warfare Integration Network (CWIN) to provide a virtual simulation environment linking its various laboratories. "If you want to demonstrate network-centric operations, the best way to do it is with a network-centric environment," says Shaw. "lf you want a B-2, you go to El Segundo, an E-2C or EA-6B to Bethpage, and E-8 or E-10 to Melbourne, a Global Hawk to Rancho Bernardino – the expertise resides at these locations."

CWIN is primarily an engineering tool. "We are pulling together the metrics for network-centric performance. We will rigorously analyse these to understand what parameters drive performance," says Shaw. "We will set up experiments, get away from demonstrations, and put systems engineering analysis in place. Demonstrations are fine, but experiment results drive development."

Simulation is only one of the things needed to be successful in developing net-centric solutions, Raytheon believes. Others include an architecture vision and system integration skills. "Companies that are successful in NCO have a focused vision for the future, demonstrated by their actions," says Tom Flynn, director, strategic initiatives.

To that end, the company is developing architectures, acquiring skills and bringing them together through modelling and simulation. Raytheon's vision of the future is the system of elements, in which everything is interdependent, not just interoperable. "We need to start thinking about putting the hooks into the engineering process to enable interdependence," says Flynn.

Raytheon will open NCO Integration and Experimentation Centers (NIECE) this year in Washington DC and southern Virginia "Customers will come to the NIECE and be able to link with any Raytheon centre of excellence to do live integration and experimentation," says Flynn. "This will bring the company together in a system of elements way, and demonstrate we are network-centric."


Source: Flight International