AFRL’s Digital Hangar to support lifecycle management of aerospace systems

  • Published
  • By Bryan Ripple
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

There is a new hangar under construction at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but this will be made of digital ones and zeros rather than steel and concrete.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s “Digital Hangar,” a concept created by Dr. Rick Graves, an Air Force Research Laboratory’s design and analysis branch aerospace research engineer, is a virtual repository containing digital surrogates of aerospace systems that have been gated through rigorous validation and verification processes.

One goal of the effort, Graves says, is to research and identify high-value data that need to be maintained, or curated, to produce an enduring set of digital artifacts for aerospace platforms that can be shared with other AFRL researchers, Air Force Service Program offices and other agencies such as NASA.

Creation and curation of the Digital Hangar is part of a Department of Defense Digital Engineering initiative that began in June 2018, with the publication of a Digital Engineering Strategy that explains how DoD hopes to transform how the services design, develop, deliver, operate and sustain systems. To read the strategy, visit

The strategy defines digital engineering as an integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of system data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support lifecycle activities from concept through disposal.

AFRL continues to develop the Digital Hangar, which will eventually house high-value design information for digital representations of Air Force aerospace systems that will inform decision-making within AFRL and other stakeholder organizations.

The Digital Hangar is focused on the design and analysis phase of the acquisition life cycle, Graves said.

“It’s a lot cheaper to address problems or to look at physics-based questions through simulation as a project moves up the scale to ground testing or even a flight test, where it becomes more and more expensive,” he said. “We want to know what types of information we should be generating and using to make decisions during early design phases because that’s where a lot of the costs for an aircraft get locked in. We want to know what types of information we should be gathering over the life cycle of the airplane. The idea is to identify what data is worth keeping, and reuse that data.”

It’s a good idea to give decision makers the options to explore concept development through digital means rather than going all the way to flight tests, Graves said, adding, “to look at preliminary concepts in terms of transitioning technology is something we really like to look at as early as we can. This helps us transition our technology more efficiently.”

Graves said he and other researchers plan to add new aerospace systems to AFRL’s Digital Hangar strategically, based on a set of rigorous validation and verification criteria.

“We are taking a few candidate test cases and maturing those to see how it looks and is received. It really isn’t just a digital description of a model – it’s all the data that goes along with that model,” Graves said.

With a background in sensitivity analysis and uncertainty quantification, Graves says he has long had interests in data science, data engineering and machine learning. As a graduate student, he was employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and was exposed to uncertainties associated with forecasting weather events. He hopes to apply these concepts and required skill sets to benefit AFRL.

AFRL’s Digital Hangar is an exciting area for young professionals who are interested in working for AFRL, according to Graves.

“We are defining what the digital transformation for AFRL is going to look like in the next 10 years. This is a time for new ideas and new approaches,” he said. “We are looking at an area where we as scientists and engineers are trying to get the people who are accepting the technology we are developing to embrace more risk. The organizations we deliver technology to may be risk adverse. You want to get them much more comfortable with the risk that you are taking to deliver them the technology that they really want. That requires a lot of communication between the two parties.”

Graves’ advice for people who may be interested in working at the lab: “come to the lab and be prepared to take risks; you are going to make mistakes. Feel free to make mistakes and learn from them.”

“We bring students in and expose them to our modeling and simulation processes,” he continued. “Anyone who leaves our organization will have hands-on experience with developing the data that’s associated with the models that might go in our Digital Hangar.”