USAF Digital Twin Efforts Progress at National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR)

As the B-1 continues its service into the 2030s, a CTMA project is assisting with the aircraft’s digital engineering (DE) transformation.

The B-1 System Program Office (SPO) began its DE transformation in early 2020 by creating a structural digital twin of a single wing at the NIAR facility at Wichita State University, then expanding to the entire airframe in 2021. Last March, a CTMA collaboration between NIAR and the B-1 SPO at Tinker Air Force Base was awarded a six-year $100M follow-on contract to continue the B-1’s DE transformation, integrating systems and weapons into the structural twin. The follow-on contract also focuses on utilizing the integrated digital twin for structures and weapons analysis.

The collaboration is creating a digital twin of the entire B-1 airframe of appropriate fidelity to meet the long-term objectives of the SPO, which includes the integration of data between the digital model and the physical aircraft through a digital thread that links authoritative data sources.

The digital twin will incorporate ultra-high-fidelity simulation, which could be paired with the B-1’s onboard integrated vehicle health management system, maintenance history, and all available historical and fleet data to mirror the life of its flying twin and enable unprecedented levels of safety and reliability.

The digital twin can be used to evaluate damage or changes to aircraft usage in order to repair, modify the design, change structural inspection intervals, or even reevaluate the design life of the asset. This initiative supports the DOD’s efforts to create digital twins, enterprise-wide, to increase mission readiness while improving maintenance and reducing sustainment costs.

“The project has several different objectives. We’re really working hard to address some parts obsolescence and diminishing manufacturing sources issues with the B-1 program,” said Dr. Melinda Laubach-Hock, NIAR’s Director of Sustainment. “Manufacturing teams today don’t want to make parts off of 2D drawings, so the objective is to develop full 3D CAD models that have each of the detailed parts for manufacturing purposes. In addition, by using digital twins we’re working toward becoming more predictive in managing the airframe and beginning to work on problems before they arise.”

The partnership also entails conducting analyses to ensure the viability and safety of new B-1 weapons to increase diversity in the weapons the airframe can carry.

“This requires a lot of engineering and computing time,” explained Laubach-Hock. “With the digital twin, we positioned ourselves very well to be able to take some of the engineering analysis workload off the Air Force. While we’re not certifying weapons, we’re doing supporting analysis work.”

In addition to the B-1 digital twin initiative, another CTMA collaboration with NIAR is creating a digital twin of the F-16. First flown in 1976, more than 3,000 F-16s are operating today in 25 countries.

“The F-16 is very tightly compact, so they’re constantly upgrading and modifying that fleet,” said Dr. Laubach-Hock. “For example, if they want to add new radar, we need to study where to locate it and how to connect the wires.”

“We’re also doing a lot of fault isolation detection for the F-16,” Dr. Laubach-Hock continued. “For instance, if you flip a switch, there are a lot of things that have to happen right for the fuel tank to fill up. What is that process and what rules and laws govern that process from an engineering perspective? We’re putting all of that into system modeling language (SysML) so we can model the way the system performs normally, then we can go in and insert little faults. For example, if there is a fuel leak, we look at what that’s going to do downstream and how’s it going to manifest itself as a physical symptom on the airframe.”

The collaboration is also focused on training both current and next-generation maintenance professionals.

“With both these programs, we’re interested in not just engineering, but also shop-floor training,” said Dr. Laubach-Hock. “We’ve looked at digital work instructions to make sure that maintainers have digital aids to assist them in some of the complex repairs they’re doing. For training, we’re teaming with some of the simulation teams to be able to give them higher fidelity, more accurate graphics that look like a B-1 and an F-16.”

The digital twin of the F-16 is scheduled to wrap up in August 2024, while the B-1 digital twin is slated to be completed in 2028.

“One of the unique objectives of all of these programs at NIAR is we’re tied to Wichita State University, so we’re an educational institute and we’re training the next-generation workforce,” said Dr. Laubach-Hock. “Probably greater than 50 percent of the employees performing work on these programs are students under the supervision of seasoned engineers. The students are getting great experience and going out to the real world with a resume that makes them highly competitive.”