Success Story

Research on Digital Twins for Modernized In-Service Engineering and Naval Maintenance


A 3-D model resulting from combined aerial photography and handheld lidar is loaded with vital metadata, thus becoming a “digital twin” available to engineers and maintenance personnel, which facilitates the shift from analog to digital engineering. Photos courtesy of Aerial Alchemy

The great races of the world are not necessarily those of speed, but rather those of a dominance of ingenuity. Consider the pre-Great War arms race or the space race under President Kennedy. What the victors of those historic events have in common is how swiftly and completely they capitalized on emerging technologies.

Our contemporary race entails the military applications of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and the utilization of their collected data. The Naval Surface Warfare Center located at Port Hueneme, California (NSWC PHD) has taken great strides in the recognition of UAS applications through efforts with Aerial Alchemy under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) signed in June 2018. Aerial Alchemy is a UAS data collection service company familiarized with Navy requisites through participation in multiple Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) iterations. Their work on power substations across California succeeded in beginning to modernize engineering methods of public utility infrastructure in the same way it could bring comparable modernization to the Navy. In the agreement’s terminology, the research’s prescribed purpose is to “investigate the feasibility of utilizing [UASs] in the realm of naval and shipboard repair, maintenance and special use situations to ensure the readiness of naval and combat systems” (NCRADA-NSWC PHD-18-0004).

Digital Engineering was dubbed a Department of Defense (DoD) initiative the same month this CRADA took effect, and this research fulfils all five points of the DoD’s Digital Engineering Strategy, most notably, to “formalize the development, integration, and use of models to inform enterprise and program decision making” (Digital Engineering Strategy, 2018).

Unlike blueprints, ship scans demonstrate true status via time-based, geotagged, metadata-dense models, which are far more actionable data sets. Aboard the Navy research vessel, M/V Independence, Aerial Alchemy produced a digital twin using aerial and onboard photogrammetry with lidar (light detection and ranging), in such exceptional detail that individual flakes of rust become visible. This lends itself to Navy preventative maintenance needs by allowing maintenance personnel to compare scans and observe corrosion degradation to key combat (or other) systems with unprecedented clarity. Research has insofar shown the potential to reduce maintenance costs and human error by producing more reliable, remotely viewable data for experts who can call for repairs on any identified quandary before its degradation to the point of failure.

Perhaps the consequential race of our day is indeed that for mastery of UASs and their digital twin outputs. The full advantage this gives the Navy and DoD has yet to be seen in its entirety, yet the experimentation under this CRADA benefits the United States by manifesting the beginnings of an effective long-term, cost-reducing, maintenance system. The accurate corrosion tracking and digital twins generated stand to be among the most innovative new capabilities in the fleet. In conclusion, consider this quote from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense and its relevance to this undertaking: “By providing a more agile and responsive development environment, digital engineering supports engineering excellence and provides a foundation to fight and win the wars of the future.”