How Digital Twins Are Unlocking The Next Era Of Aerospace And Government Applications

Improving reliability at the system level and the chip level.


By Ian Land, Jason Niatas, and Marc Serughetti

Amidst changing economic waters and stringent manufacturing cycles, the aerospace, defense, and government landscape has seen an impressive technological evolution in the last few years. Innovations such as automating mission-critical systems and deploying advanced electronics in deep space exploration are expanding opportunities for government and commercial applications alike. These advancements highlight the need for safe, reliable semiconductors and software. To enable reliable functionality in any environment — on land, in water, in the air, or in space — complex electronics systems need to be prototyped, verified, and monitored to reduce risk and increase quality.

But how do you ensure complex systems such as satellites the size of football fields or sensors with processing the size of a quarter can operate without fault for prolonged periods of time?

Digital twins offer a unique capability to tackle the complexity of sophisticated systems and to accelerate time-to-market without compromising security or efficiency. While the term is often considered to be more visionary than what is being implemented today, system companies have been implementing digital twins into their development process for some time. A “shift left” approach is necessary to enable earlier modeling and analysis of digital twins, expanding potential use cases that can be accomplished early on in a product lifecycle. This empowers customers to create cutting-edge electronic systems (both hardware and software) and meet ambitious application requirements.

Why Are Digital Twins Important?
Digital twins can be used for a variety of applications and functions. Similar to its definition in the automotive industry, a digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical system and mimics functionalities of the actual hardware and software. In the world of aerospace and defense, digital twins provide a virtual representation of systems such as an aircraft, a satellite, or even a semiconductor subsystem within a larger system.

For the past two decades, the concept of digital twins applied only to mechanical parts and components. However, over the past four to five years, digital twins have also been used for electronic systems. This change in use is driven by the increasing complexity of compute platforms, the availability of improved capabilities and models, and the substantial amount of software run on today’s systems.

A fundamental question that teams ask when utilizing digital twins is: What system level is being considered? Is it for a subsystem like the braking system in an aircraft? Is it for a printed circuit board in the cockpit? Or is it for an underlying chip and its software that drives critical control functions with an aircraft? While the principles remain the same across different system levels, digital twins are important in aerospace and government because they can augment or replace the physical systems which were required for prototyping in the past. They are also valuable for developers in multiple locations or for demonstration to a customer or user.

For example, the Joint Strike Fighter has over 25 million lines of code and has 30,000 pounds dry weight. Imagine the challenge to modify the software code and physical computer hardware as the aircraft control processing and surfaces are changed during development. The cost and time involved is enormous, let alone the possibility of achieving a healthy failure-to-success ratio. Additionally, prototyping provides the most benefit when it is utilized early in the development stage and adds significant value post hardware availability, when critical design decisions such as CI/CD flow and fault injection methodologies are being made — an impossible feat to achieve without actual hardware. This is where digital twins play a crucial role in testing, validating, and verifying both the hardware and software in real-world conditions. For example, by using a virtual manufacturing approach with Synopsys Saber, General Motors reduced cost by 95% compared to using a physical manufacturing environment.

ECreate Before You Aviate
Today, it’s not just system-level defense or aerospace companies pushing for a “proof of concept” before a system goes live — the U.S. government, through its “ECreate Before You Aviate” program, stresses the need for demonstrating if an aircraft can do what it’s set to do before it takes off from the runway.

Virtual software testing as well as safety and security evaluations pave the way for early hardware and software integration and faster supply of mission-critical systems at reduced cost with faster deployment time. Companies that use digital twins have an advantage when selling to customers like the U.S. Government, since they can demonstrate the workings of the digital models at program reviews. Rather than spending hours estimating the result of countless physical test systems, teams can now sit in reviews with more data and modeling insights before finalizing the system. They can also look at the performance of system variations on digital models. This not only creates room for better decision-making, but also can optimize the system’s performance throughout its lifecycle and through variations needed for different military branches, satisfying requirements of the different Joint Program Executive Offices.

Certification according to DO-178C/ED-12C or DO-254/ED-80 is unique to aerospace and government applications. Because of the cost of physical prototypes, teams tend to prefer digital twins to develop subsystems prior to the full system’s certification process. Using digital twins for certification not only helps to optimize the cost, but also helps lower deployment time and, more importantly, risk.

Beyond the Ordinary
No one simulator can solve all problems. The industry needs access to a heterogeneous environment with multiple simulations or simulators working in sync for comprehensive system development. Because digital twins are multi-domain, they can gather data from one simulation and apply useful data sets to another simulation to gain actionable insights. The field data can be analyzed to reproduce issues in simulation that improve system-related operational metrics.

As an analogy, think of the over-the-air software updates that Tesla pushes to cars for software upgrades. Tesla uses digital representations of the car’s system to model the changes before they get pushed out. In aerospace and government applications, certain systems will require in-field updates for which virtual prototypes can use data reported in the field to help test and debug for use cases that would impact the system. Teams can use data that is captured from previous generation in-field systems to improve the next generation of systems, pointing to how teams can model and simulate systems before they build them —essentially, coming full circle.

Such possibilities and opportunities make digital twin technology fascinating as the world of electronic design and development continues to bring systems to life. This is why Synopsys offers digital twin solutions at a semiconductor component level that focus on the design and development of reliable electronic systems including both hardware and software. We also work closely with government and business leaders and play an active role in industry-recognized programs. Our close collaboration gives our customers the peace of mind and confidence to exceed mission requirements before they hit production.

What Lies Ahead for Digital Twins in Aerospace and Government?
Digital twins are already accelerating progress for aerospace, defense, and government applications. The technology will become more important in the development cycle as electronics increase in complexity and expand to multi-die systems.

Down the “runway,” we wouldn’t be surprised if the technology will be used as a set of fundamental building blocks from development throughout the life of the system as well as for regression and post-deployment testing. The fastest and most competitive players who can master the art and have the deepest of expertise will succeed. At Synopsys, we believe that the promise of digital twins in aerospace and government applications is being realized quickly.

Jason Niatas is a product solutions sales manager at Synopsys; Marc Serughetti is a senior director for Embedded Software Solutions and Systems.

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