By Marissa Cote and Caroline Briselli
Lights, cameras, strange costumes. To the untrained eye, this tucked-away room could be a movie set — after all, El Segundo, California, isn’t so far from Hollywood.
But teams don’t come here to film blockbusters. With the help of a new digital technology, they’re perfecting human-system interactions.
Leveraging model-based systems engineering, virtual reality and full-body, high-precision motion capture, the Highly Immersive Virtual Environment (HIVE) allows engineers to be present inside their designs. Aided by a motion capture suit, engineers test maintenance and operations procedures, taking on different first-person, digital personas — a bit taller, for example — to ensure procedures are optimized for everyone.
“The HIVE offers a compelling case for a structure’s strengths and shortcomings,” said Re-Entry Systems Integrated Product Team Lead Bill Raymond. “You can see various people demonstrate, for example, how they would or wouldn’t be able to access mounted hardware, which is much more convincing than traditional computer-aided design models.”
Once critical adjustments have been identified, the model can be updated on the server and — because the model serves as the single digital thread for everything, including the HIVE — engineers can immediately suit up again to interact with the revised design without creating or translating any additional models.
The HIVE was first introduced in 2016 by creator Sibo Chou, who leads the OneHIVE team with Aline Rodrigues in Melbourne, Florida. The HIVE was first used in the Strike division, and today, over the course of nearly 200 HIVE assessments, Sibo estimates it has saved millions of dollars in error avoidance.
“The HIVE brings all the right stakeholders together, where they provide input that enables designers to focus not just on the program requirements but on everyone using the product through the program’s lifecycle,” said Sibo. “This has a huge impact on lowering the product lifecycle cost; imagine having the capability to design, build, maintain and operate the product in virtual reality before any hardware is procured.”
For Sibo, the HIVE is digital transformation in action — by harnessing digital technologies, like MBSE and virtual reality, teams of engineers are empowered to deliver with the speed and agility that their customers require.
Now, the power of the HIVE is being brought to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program. Senior engineer Azad Kupelian has led the capability’s use and development on GBSD since 2019.
“As a critical leg of the nuclear triad, GBSD is a system that needs to perform on a day that will hopefully never come,” said Azad. “With the HIVE, we’re not focused on what’s happening on that day — we’re studying what’s happening every day, the daily logistics of keeping the system maintained and primed for if it is ever needed.”
“Using the HIVE gave us an early indication of design changes needed to meet requirements, as well as the opportunity to create a really good experience for those maintaining the system,” said Spencer Brown, who worked with the HIVE while supporting the GBSD proposal. “By helping us understand human factors, including accessibility and ergonomics, the HIVE lowers risk and saves cost by identifying design issues early, before physical hardware is built and tested.”
With the HIVE as a key capability for GBSD, a second HIVE for use on the GBSD program has been built in Ogden, Utah, and the original HIVE will be sent to Roy, Utah. While they may be miles apart, these HIVEs will be digitally connected.
“Having two, connected HIVEs allows our engineers to physically work in different cities, but collaborate in the same virtual workspace together at the same time,” said Bryan Campbell, who previously worked with the HIVE on Strike and now leverages it in his role as GBSD air vehicle design integration lead.
It feels like Hollywood magic — and, just like Hollywood producers, Northrop Grumman engineers are bringing abstract ideas to life.