How modern technology frameworks affect the aerospace industry.

Jan 2023 | Interview | Chad Collins

Chad Collins

Sr. Consultant, Product Perfect

As a senior software consultant and author with deep expertise in complex application development, Chad has 20 years of experience designing and developing large scale and program critical systems.

What is Space 2.0 and how are large aerospace firms stepping into it?

Chad Collins:

Space 2.0 is this new grand frontier of aerospace and engineering - really spearheaded by companies like Space X and other upstarts, that is undoing generations of thinking around cost and construction methods. It's companies raising new money to solve these old problems of gravity and electricity and fuel and air and so forth. It's a privatization of the NASA monopoly. Smaller, private firms with venture funding are stepping in and making bold claims. Everything from satellites to rockets to asteroids - all of it.

But a lot of these firms - all of them smart and savvy and many from tech industry backgrounds by the way. But a lot of them are teaching the Space 1.0 stalwarts about some of the newer ways of doing business. And so - if we were going to take that next big leap, which I think that's the buzz word for Space 2.0, to take that big leap with Space 2.0 and be successful, they are going to have to break away from old procurement models and move into a more iterative design of procurement model, demand and requirements are going to be coming from consumers, not really government-driven anymore.

How are software engineering models and methodologies morphing and changing in the aerospace industry?

Chad Collins:

Well it's starting to change but there's a lot more under the waterline so to speak taking place. There was a study by Deloitte that estimated cost overruns of $15.8 billion - occurring just because of poor communication between teams operating in a waterfall environment. And they expect that number to increase 51% per year moving forward. When government money is involved, RFPs are not going to go away. It's married to it. It's like my hand is glued to my body. It's just not to disappear, so they'll have to accommodate that, moving to an iterative process.

So the engineers come together and they operate in this sort of pseudo-scientific model or framework, trying to get to their end-state objectives in a rapid, agile way. But their still stuck in waterfall paradigms. The iterative process isn't just restricted to software. It's in all, in the hardware production as well, in development, but for software to play well with the hardware, both hardware and software development need to move to an iterative-type methodology.

What's changing right now?

Chad Collins:

Well the re-standardization of things for starters... everything is being revisited. Software, hardware, fuel, rockets, shapes, ... everything. And so there's got to be a re-standardization of processes in the aerospace industry. The spec driven is very rigid, and so either it could run out of gas or just begin to just break down. Systems that are... Projects get cost overruns, get delayed, eventually can be canceled. It's a dying dinosaur. Studies indicate about a 25% code reuse in aerospace currently. Now, that is unacceptable. Think of the savings you'd have, if you could take 40, 50, 60% of the code for project A and transfer that to project B versus having to write code completely from scratch all over again.

What are some of the software applications you've worked on?

Chad Collins:

So many. Web and desktop... Subsystems and primary systems to start with. You have instrument panel software, you have management oversight software, on the ground software, onboard flight systems. There's four or five subsystems, many times what you'd think if you're coming into the industry for the first time.

How are aerospace costs being upended?

Chad Collins:

Time and materials costs have definitely been shifting and soft of has been cut in half between the large establishment and the smaller funded upstarts. The ecosystem itself - all the vendors and suppliers - all of these subcontractor companies are a part of the larger plan of the larger companies - who are really the ones setting the prices and timelines and requirements. Those larger firms are in the driver's seat because they're the ones with the DoD contracts. So the costs back-into the contract expectations. But in the upstarts, you'd not be under that sort of paradigm so it's a completely different mentality there.

Code reuse is also a big factor in that. In that area of software management and aerospace, economics needs to be considered, because the government contract may not always be there, the perpetual budget may not always be there.

Everything’s in a state of flux right now.

What needs to change in the Aerospace industry?

Chad Collins:

I think that’s a really hard question to answer. Everything’s in a state of flux right now. So it’s sort of true to say that it’s already changing and we’re just watching to see how it changes. I mean, you could have multiple layers of change happening all at once, and we seen that another industries certainly. But technologically, and of course, our focus being software development and software integrations or modernizations, I think we see clearly that there’s a modernization challenge that aerospace is grappling with. They really have to put together a multi decade effort toward revamping, their technology systems and subsystems and hardware. But you know the situation is that they’re backing into RFPs and they’re trying to chase the dollars for existing opportunities and don’t want to just drop everything and modernize the computer subsystem for the sake of modernizing it alone. So it’s gonna be hard to justify a capital investment into a software product that doesn’t have immediate returns. It all has to tie into the RFP. Most of the department of defense contracts, of course, or extremely specific so the people riding the RFPs are the ones who are truly dictating a lot of the subsystem, versioning and equipment requirements and compatibility requirements.    So that’s the game that’s being played. You can’t just go change the rules of the game in the middle of the game. I think the people who will force the imposition of change will be upstarts and venture funded organizations. They will write their own rule, book, and then slam it on the desk of the government agencies to adhere to. And we’ve seen that happen already in the last few decades.

A recent report by an aerospace research company reinforced the notion that the industry’s focus will shift more toward a new type of supply chain with a more resilient and dynamic supplier model. They point to vertical integration and local-sourcing or “on-shoring” as a key part of that. What are your thoughts on this prediction? 

Chad Collins:

Well yes, some of this is already happening. I think we’re seeing a movement potentially but it’s early. The onshoring and local and even what some call hyperlocal, all of these are very real and very near-term. But to the extent that that industry demands it of course. Not all things will be as smooth or maybe as clear-cut as some of these predictions would have it. I mean, it definitely helps to have vendors who are down the street when we are dealing with global pandemics and shipping lane blockage, and all the logistical challenges of the last decade, or even the last five years that we’ve seen. Some of these parts will hold up the aerospace assembly process and so you definitely want to have back up suppliers and a very clear and very finite set of secondary providers for pretty much any project you have running in parallel. But it’s true that it’s sort of a hedge. You know, they’re heading their bets a bit to make sure that a project has some sort of flexibility built into it to switch suppliers midterm, or even earlier if they run into transportation or quality issues. But there are also some drawbacks, most notably, the fact that it’s more expensive, because of course, those other companies that are local are operating in the United States where the costs are a little bit higher in terms of overhead. So I think there’s some careful calculations that these project planners have to put themselves through to make sure they’re doing it right and that they factor it all together in a more cohesive and layered set of calculations. 

How will machine learning make its way into aerospace? When will that become mainstream?

Chad Collins:

Well I think it’s already arriving as we speak. We just haven’t heard updates about it because the developers are working quietly on it in the shadows and cubicle farms of these aerospace companies. And, they’ve really got a ton of solving to do, because there are enormous challenges with this notion. That is, it’s a little different to run large algorithms when you’re on the ground vs. 30,000 feet in the air. The server farm is less proximal so there’s a bit of latency that needs to be solved first. But that’s all solvable. So it will come down to moving the bits and bytes in the smartest way possible, and that’s going to happen. But beyond that I think there’s a chance we could see less pilots in the cockpit and more autonomous systems in place. Machine learning might also help prevent a ton of the flight delays and configuration of moving people around throughout country. It’s really quite complex but again, solvable challenges. There are weather data to handle, flight conflict resolution, simulation models to run, so many aspects… 

How should aerospace companies prepare for the next 10 years?

Chad Collins:

Well, I think there’s a lot of new technologies that they can start to embrace right away like more 3-D printing onsite and using some more advanced materials and different alloys that they hadn’t tried before. I think a resilient supply chain is really critical, diversification of each and every type of vendor in their supply train matrix. I mean, this is truly mission critical for companies to get ahead of as we move into the age of artificial intelligence so that’s a part of this as well. They really need to go deep on AI and look to partner up with some of the leading providers so that they’re not left behind. I can’t imagine a scenario where AI would not provide some sort of lift in terms of project, schedule, quality, safety, cost savings, I mean, there’s just so many ways I could think that this new powerful and far-reaching tool is going to have a direct and long-term impact on this industry. I think also we want to make sure we don’t forget about cybersecurity. Just because these machines are flying through the air, it doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable to cyber security attacks. And we’ve seen the systems on the ground quite vulnerable as well, just recently, even with US government‘s flight control system, and flight awareness software being down for a few days. 

What sort of cultural movements are aerospace executives seeing?

Chad Collins:

Not sure I can give a definitive answer on this but if I took a stab I’d say that there's a growing focus on sustainability and environmentally-friendly sourcing and development practices. With media and pundits and lobbyists in the mix, you know, we hear somewhat muffled but we do hear concerns about climate change and the impact of the aerospace industry on the environment, so I think many companies are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and operate in a more sustainable way. Not sure how possible that is with renewable energy in this industry because of course jets don’t fly electric and that’s  likely not going to change anytime soon. 

Switching gears a bit. What about open source software. How much is used in aerospace?

Chad Collins:

Some. Yes. But ya not as much as maybe some software developers want to claim… but open source software is definitely becoming more popular in the aerospace industry if the license is truly open source. Because of course there are different levels and nuances of open source software. We know that some open source software is fully reusable and free forever for anything and everything you can imagine, but other open-source software have license agreements with these little legal clauses, or strings attached to it, that you gotta watch out for… but I think a lot of companies are starting to see the benefits of using it, like of course saving a ton of money and being able to work with other companies who also have that product in their arsenal on similar platforms. 

But, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the aerospace industry is heavily regulated and using open source software in certain areas, like safety-critical systems, can be a bit tricky and raise a lot of scrutiny when the auditors come poking around. But more companies are starting to use it in non-critical systems and for research and development projects and you know, managing all sorts of ground, operational software, systems, or project management systems, or whatever else that we would probably deem as not essential or secondary. 

The world is a big place. So what about the future for aerospace when it comes to global geopolitical complexities?

Chad Collins:

Right. So there’s a lot going on right now, we know in Eastern Europe we’ve got the Russia, Ukraine conflict and we’ve got NATO and Germany negotiating on sending in equipment to the theater of war. Aerospace and defense of course are connected at the hip so there’s so much that affects each other from both sides of the equation... And, geopolitical conflicts like these can disrupt air travel and make it even more difficult for airlines to operate in certain regions or fly over car countries airspace. So, certainly a lot of different factors at play, even more with trade tensions, elections, and regulations. You know, so as an example, trade tensions between countries can affect the supply chain for aerospace companies and make it more difficult to source certain parts or materials. 

Regulations are another big factor, especially when it comes to international trade and investment in supplier relationships. Different countries have different regulations for aerospace products, and companies have to navigate these regulations in order to do business globally and that means it affects their ability to partner and also maintain those partnerships.

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