BAE Systems Digital Twin Solution

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Case Study Overview

BAE Systems Surface Ships development teams have unique requirements for creating software that is used to operate ships at sea, with multiple components that must be resilient and highly available due to complex onboard systems and challenging environments.

De-risking software systems at sea using a digital twin

In recent years, military operations have been undergoing rapid transformations, requiring armed forces to be well-prepared and efficient in activities in different terrains, both domestically and internationally. The changing environment is not only due to new and unpredictable threats but also impacted by digital technologies and innovative ways of functioning, which have revolutionised the means of achieving organisational and mission advantage.

These advancements highlight the need for safe, reliable software. One solution to navigate this challenge could be the use of digital twins. By enabling reliable functionality in any environment — on land, in water, in the air, or in space — digital twins allow for the safe prototyping, verification, and monitoring of complex electronics systems to reduce risk and improve quality.

LUNIQ and BAE Systems Naval Ships embarked on a partnership to produce a cost-effective solution that enables software development teams at BAE Systems to quickly create environments for testing and developing the software used on board naval ships. Broadly, the project set out to deliver a software-based digital twin using the VMware solution stack by creating blueprints of current onboard ship software solutions and applications assisting with troubleshooting.

How does it work?

BAE Systems Surface Ships development teams have unique requirements for creating software that is used to operate ships at sea, with multiple components that must be resilient and highly available due to complex onboard systems and challenging environments.

The BAE Systems digital twin efficiently responds to this challenging context. Before the ship goes offshore, onboard systems are quickly and accurately reproduced on land in order to troubleshoot and address any issues that arise. This is all achieved in an online, centralised system that runs on a virtualised platform. The digital twin is built on the VMware software-defined data centre solution, together with the VMware end-user computing virtual desktop and app delivery stack, and complete with bespoke ship requirements and functionalities.

To access the digital twin platform, developers use a virtual desktop machine that is built on-demand and includes all the necessary applications and tools. Delivered through the VMware software-defined virtualisation platform, the virtual desktop machine provides developers with access to their own set of infrastructure components. They can easily create and deploy new project environments, or replicate existing ones without excessively changing the interface they are used to seeing, and maintaining a good end user experience.

Changes and updates are quickly saved and shared with other developers for testing, meaning environments can be very easily deployed to new developers or the testing teams, which speeds up the overall test and development lifecycle. This approach enables currently deployed systems to be duplicated onshore for testing and issue resolution.

Any application can be taken off for improvement and development of a new version based on user needs and requests. Using the digital twin, new features can be built and tested safely in software on land by simulating failures. This process not only facilitates troubleshooting but accelerates development times. The results are documented and added to maintainers’ guides onboard ships. To learn more about how the BAE Systems digital twin works, download this piece written by LUNIQ.

What are the benefits?

The ability to work in digital twins allows us to build consistent system representations that mean we are able to de-risk multiple solutions simultaneously with a high level of system fidelity. We can rapidly build twins of systems in multiple configurations in a way that is logistically and financially impossible with physical systems.

Jon Whitehurst
Chief Engineer, Naval Ships Combat Systems, BAE Systems

Reducing costs

One of the central achievements of the project was reducing investments in hardware. A team of developers of 50 to 100 people is required to support the software system of a naval ship, each of them requiring extensive hardware equipment. Developing and testing onboard software typically requires significant IT resources: they need large, expensive laptops with complex technical specifications. This equipment is not only costly but also time-consuming to deploy and difficult to acquire (a few years ago, the entire world suffered supply chain issues due to the chip shortage).

More broadly, we can infer that the acceleration of digital twins take-up across diverse industries is partly caused by limited hardware availability. This is not simply because hardware availability is challenging but organisations are more encouraged to reduce usage of hardware equipment to lessen the impact on the environment and opt for a more sustainable solution.

Improving collaboration and accessibility

Another benefit that comes from employing a digital twin is improving collaboration between people who can access the platform from anywhere. Using the digital twin allows the transfer of all of the software systems that are running onboard the ship – from basic air conditioning or programmes that help run the kitchens all the way through to engines and weapon systems – as applications that function centrally and can be accessed offline to develop new versions, update existing versions, or troubleshoot. This means that they can all be easily accessed from a distance, which leads to better working practices.

This is particularly beneficial when we think about third-party suppliers to BAE Systems: contractors or partners, for example. The digital twin allows them to access these systems and significantly simplifies collaboration.

Additionally, providing support for onboard systems can be challenging because ships are often at sea for extended periods of time. A person can work directly on the digital twin platform, since the systems in question are complete copies of those found on board the ship. This means that the digital twin completely removes the necessity for people to physically be present on board to make any changes, saving time and resources.

For instance, if a ship is out on exercise, with the help of the digital twin, it does not have to come back to harbour because of a software issue or a system requiring updates. Equally, experts do not need to be onboard to make any changes to the software. People are able to get things done much more easily than before.

Improving end user experience

Apart from maintaining an interface that is already familiar to developers, the digital twin circumvents the necessity to build environments. The digital twin is similar to a catalogue.

Previously, if the developers needed to test or troubleshoot, they had to build the testing environment or virtualisation platform from scratch, which is time consuming. The use of the digital twin removes the extra step. Moreover, increasing automation removes the potential human error element in the process and provides consistency.

Building a defence digital twin

LUNIQ and BAE’s process started with talking to the end users, the developers in this case, and understanding the use case. Considering their needs, challenges and wants informed the process of bringing together the necessary pieces of software- and hardware-based technology that are efficient in their environment.

Delivering the project in a complex context came with its own set of challenges. Putting together a software replica of the onboard systems was essential to simulate and test. Delivering those findings as a digital twin version was a matter of concern. Translating the requirements into an output that matches the expectations of the end users represents a key part of its effectiveness: a digital twin has to be a faithful replica.

Moreover, rapid changes in demands on technology within the defence sector means that industry bodies need to increase their speed of response, precision, and interoperability, while maintaining high levels of protection. The security aspect had to be carefully considered and explored between LUNIQ and BAE Systems to ensure that all procedures were followed. The proposed solution, a cloud-like architecture, provides automation, the necessary backup and additional features required for the platform, and was chosen as the optimal solution.

The two main collaborations necessary for the building of the digital twin platform were with the software vendors, VMware, and the hardware platform vendor, Dell. The process entailed consolidating trust and confidence in the suitability of the partnership choices. Previous projects where similar approaches were adopted, demonstrated that the cloud solution is in line with the security requirements of BAE Systems.

In terms of the time frame, the project was carried out in 18 months. Early on in the process, it became apparent that the platform required a resilience strategy to mitigate against specific component failures or downtime, as well as a data backup solution.

In the final six months of the project, the high availability business continuity features were added to the platform so that the digital twin is readily available and scalable. Before its implementation, developers were always under threat of component failure, whether it be a software crash or a piece of hardware malfunction.

The importance of sharing lessons

Digital twins empower our customers to make strategic operational business decisions by simulating real-world systems and processes in a cost efficient manner.

William Vargo
Managing Director, LUNIQ

Places like the Digital Twin Hub facilitate the necessary communication with people working on similar projects. New technologies like digital twins require a space for sharing the possibilities in providing solutions for similar projects. Case studies demonstrate the suitability for the chosen approaches under similar conditions and can be used as guidance to reach the solution faster.

The approach used by LUNIQ and BAE Systems for the digital twin project in the defence sector is also applicable in the manufacturing and aerospace industries, particularly for testing. Adopting digital twin technologies would significantly reduce operating costs.

What is next for the BAE Systems digital twin? In the future, there could potentially be another iteration around improving automation using machine learning and AI algorithms. Such features would be useful in the testing process because of their capacity to make assessments and predictions and offer formulas for resolution based on previous tests and troubleshooting exercises.

Advancing interoperability in the defence sector

Rapid changes in demands on technology within the defence sector means that industry bodies need to increase their speed of response, precision, and interoperability, while maintaining high levels of protection. The BAE Systems digital twin should ultimately function in concert with systems developed by other suppliers. As part of its Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy, The Ministry of Defence emphasises that for a smooth system deployment, suppliers should collaborate from the initial design stage and prioritise interoperability, so that eventually the UK will benefit from a connected network of tools rather than isolated assets.

Team Defence Information is already working to create and implement an ecosystem of digital twins across the Defence estate and platforms which enable timely and useful decision, design and capability support. This initiative enables entities operating in the sector to collaborate and make use of each other’s resources, thus reducing duplication. In turn, this brings another set of benefits, which include:

  • Cost reductions across the supply chain by improving the manufacturing process;
  • Carbon and environmental savings;
  • Reducing the downtime of assets; and
  • Downskilling the workforce and improving operations.

Thank you to Peter von Oven, the Chief Technologist responsible for the partnership between LUNIQ and BAE Systems Naval Ships, and Steve Green, Research Technology and Innovation Lead at Technology Defence Information, for their insightful comments about this digital twin application.