Airlifting the Aerospace Arena with Technology and People

Willie Krenz, CIO, The Aerospace Corporation
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I said for quite a while that Aerospace would be one the last companies to embrace the use of cloud computing due to the security requirements. The benefits, particularly for a company of our size and geographic diversity, have been clear for years–easier business continuity, faster rollout of upgrades, and better computing surge capability at lower cost. What surprised me was how quickly vendors embraced cloud for government usage (which met the bulk of our security requirements), and then allowed a Federally Funded Research and Development Center to be allowed into that space. As a result, we have made significant steps into cloud solutions, both in Software as a Service and for cloud computing (to handle significant surge computer simulations and analyses). As for our industry partners, they have a more difficult time utilizing cloud services because of the security demands (and they cannot typically use government clouds). If they are big enough, they can create their own internal systems efficiently, but smaller companies still struggle.

There are opportunities there, primarily in manufacturing and monitoring of parts. Space systems have traditionally had heavy emphasis on detailed simulations anyway, since you cannot easily replicate all the conditions in a lab, and utilizing a “digital twin” can make it easier to collect and maintain information on a part’s configuration and condition. However, security will continue to hamper adoption. The key aspect of IoT is open communication of a “thing” regardless of where it is, and this demands certain communications, which are not always appropriate in a secure environment. Further, even if security could allow the right communications, many of the parts can be very sensitive to electro-magnetic interference and will not function properly in the presence of other signals. At our corporation, we are limited on where we can put WiFi due to a) proximity to secure areas and b) proximity to sensitive antennas or other equipment. Those are real limitations to implementation of IoT.

 The overall theme is exploiting all the data available to make better decisions 

The biggest overall theme I would suggest is exploiting all the data available to make better decisions. In the defense space that can be complicated by security, policy, and communication, but I know most companies are at least experimenting with those sorts of improvements. As digital information can be stored and communicated, more opportunities are available for people to collaborate and innovate in a clear and concise manner.

There are huge opportunities in this area, if technologies can be applied. However, the biggest impediment is not algorithms or data but policy. Sharing of certain kinds of data is very difficult within current approaches and guidelines. If the data cannot be shared, Big Data cannot be applied. Most of the limitations we have run across in our experiments have been because the analyst does not have enough access to enough interesting sources to draw very interesting conclusions.

I do not know that the data is that vast from a storage perspective, but it is certainly from a communications perspective, so it is the communication infrastructure that needs to be beefy and secure. Most operate on wifi, but I expect it to improve over the years. Certainly on-board processing and ground processing will continue to improve.

As far as my role as a strategic partner with other parts of our own organization, nothing has really changed. Our leadership team appreciates the role of IT and understands how it benefits our internal staff and external customers. As for how my own function has changed, the key difference is that as we have moved more toward cloud services, my role in working strategically with vendors has increased, to ensure that their service roadmaps are in line with where we want to go. Similarly, more of our application development has shifted to providing some integrable interfaces on the Software as a Service (SaaS) services we use so that our users get a more consistent experience across multiple platforms and offerings.

My key role since I took this job eight and half years ago has been to communicate effectively between the business and the IT function. It is so easy for IT folks to fall into geek speak that provides no value to our internal customers. My job is to constantly convey to my IT staff the key strategies of our corporation and be able to translate the services we provide back to the technical staff working hard space problems. Therefore, while it is the standard advice of maintaining strong and strategic relationships with the business, each business has a unique culture that needs to be well understood. For us, we have thousands of research engineers and rocket scientists who a) are skeptical that IT can do computing better than they can, b) need lots of details because thatis how they got their jobs, and c) are risk averse because space is such a difficult business. Applying those cultural peculiarities to IT strategies and adoption approaches is crucial to any kind of success.

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