Nicknamed “The Bone,” the B-1B Lancer is a highly versatile, multi-mission supersonic conventional bomber, carrying the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory. The fuselage of the B-1 Lancer weighs 90,000 pounds, is the length of half a football field, and takes up three lanes of traffic. With those statistics, moving a 1985 B-1 from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona across five states to the National Institute for Aviation Research (NAIR) at Wichita State University was a herculean feat. But Dr. Melinda Laubach-Hock, NIAR Director of Sustainment, knows the stress of organizing that transport was worth it.
“It took six months of planning to get the B-1 fuselage to our facility,” says Laubach-Hock. “The process involved nine days of moving, multiple permits, highway closures, and police escorts. The last two miles took over two hours because we had to have the power company manually raise the power lines. Nothing was easy about moving a B-1.”
The extensive plans were part of a CTMA initiative to create a digital twin to this aging, yet still critical aircraft. For the first time, a digital twin is being created for an entire military aircraft down to the nuts and bolts. The wings are currently being digitized, followed by the tails, nacelle, and fuselage.
“This is a new digital era for the U.S. Air Force. Now we will be able to see the complete structure without even touching the physical aircraft,” says Laubach-Hock.
There are three main goals for this project that will digitize an aircraft that was designed over 35 years ago with all specifications recorded on paper.
The first goal is to make acquiring spare parts easier. With an obsolescence challenge in obtaining spare parts that are no longer available, the digital blueprint can be used to prototype and test the parts before creating new molds or even additive manufacturing technical data packages. Secondly, maintainers today have grown up with technology and are comfortable using virtual reality and optics for inspections, training, and maintenance activities. Finally, digital twins can project which areas of the aircraft will be vulnerable to fatigue and other hot spots of concern. These high-fidelity engineering models will take the maintenance and sustainment tasks from reactionary to predictive.
“The Air Force is very excited for a digital twin for several reasons. Overall, we want to keep the B-1 flying until 2040. To do that will require a tremendous amount of effort. The B-1 has already overflown its expected lifespan. The digital twin will play a big role in achieving the 2040 goal. The digital twin will help us organize all our inspections and repairs, update the model in real-time, and start to show us patterns. I like to think of it as a virtual medical record that is letting us real-time diagnose the structural health,” says Lt Col Joseph Lay, Material Leader, B-1 Systems Engineering Branch, Tinker Air Force Base.
This initiative is the vanguard of what the Air Force plans to accomplish with its full legacy portfolio. As equipment ages and is asked to perform well beyond its expected lifespan, creating digital twins will ensure productive sustainment and equipment that will support the warfighter whenever called to be ready.