Project MOSQUITO has the Wings to Change How Military Aircraft are Built
By Albert McKeon
Despite the smallness of its insect namesake, Project MOSQUITO has a big objective: transform the development of combat aircraft.
In an attempt to create an uncrewed combat air system — an autonomous aircraft, working in tandem to support larger fighter jets — Northrop Grumman, as part of Team MOSQUITO which also comprises Spirit AeroSystems as project lead and Intrepid Minds, is employing digital engineering and Lean-Agile development methods to get this project off the ground and ensure successful project delivery.
But this approach could have wings even beyond Project MOSQUITO. Northrop Grumman hopes that its use of agile development techniques and modern computing practices will ultimately find favour in the development of future combat systems across land, sea and air, as the need for aircraft, vehicles, technologies and support systems to be created fast and with flexibility increases.
“The length of the development and procurement process for military projects is notoriously long,” said Declan Hayes-McCoy, Northrop Grumman’s U.K. project manager for the second phase of development for Project MOSQUITO. “Sometimes, it can be out of date by the time it’s built. With an agile approach, you develop things quicker, and you can adjust to changes quicker. You’re future-proofing.”
A New Way to Build a Combat Aircraft
The second stage of Project MOSQUITO calls for the creation of a full-scale demonstrator aircraft that will conduct test flights in 2024 — a benchmark moment to demonstrate that a particular type of aircraft can, in fact, be built in a particular way.
If the Royal Air Force in the U.K. decides to deploy MOSQUITO, it could have the capability to target enemy aircraft and withstand surface-to-surface air missiles. It is part of the RAF’s Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft concept: an uncrewed combat air system that would fly at high speed alongside existing RAF combat aircraft such as Typhoon and F-35, and future combat systems, such as Tempest and serve as a bodyguard and source of real-time information during conflict and rescue missions. Furthermore, MOSQUITO can integrate with existing aircraft, not just fly along with it.
For now, though, Northrop Grumman’s contribution to Project Mosquito has two aims: to create the demonstrator for testing and to devise a road map that lays out how Northrop Grumman and its partners can successfully use Lean-Agile practices. This new digital engineering toolset will ensure that future combat air systems can be delivered in a significantly more efficient and effective manner.
Using Model-Based Systems Engineering to Follow an Iterative Process
Hayes-McCoy and colleagues are using an approach known as model-based systems engineering (MBSE). As opposed to document-based systems engineering, in which different stakeholders hold various viewpoints and contribute differing documents that have to be reconciled, MBSE puts the model itself at the centre of work. As Carnegie-Melon University’s Software Engineering Institute explains, when MBSE is pursued digitally, it creates “a single source of truth […] in which discipline-specific views of the system are created using the same model elements.”
Indeed, the second phase of Project MOSQUITO “is determining a new way of working with mobile systems and new digital tool sets,” Hayes-McCoy said.
“If we can change that aspect of design, that it can be achieved digitally, it becomes a much quicker and much more efficient way of designing aircraft, a new way of working,” he continued. “It reduces risk and can enable significant cost savings.”
So, instead of developing MOSQUITO by adhering to a set of requirements — and thus building and testing in a set way and almost inevitably meeting unexpected challenges and roadblocks that add time and money to the project — MBSE allows Northrop Grumman to follow a more iterative process through which changes can be made early and almost seamlessly, Hayes-McCoy explained.
“We can deliver initial demonstrators that can produce a concept early in the project that works, and then iteratively develop it through sprints,” he noted.
Tradition Won’t Develop the Future
As Hayes-McCoy’s U.K. team handles the digital end of the project, his counterparts in the U.S. will develop and create some of the complex systems that will be integrated into MOSQUITO. It’s a challenging but exciting time for them as they attempt to demonstrate that military systems can be delivered through MBSE in a way that still integrates the traditional way of building. After all, while militaries and their private sector partners have their sights set on the future, not every process or technology is yet futurised.
As militaries further embrace the use of autonomous systems, AI and other advanced technologies to gain an information advantage in highly contested environments, the agility and adaptability of digital engineering is undoubtedly becoming the norm. The potential of digital engineering on MOSQUITO is already there to see. It will advance the project in a fraction of the time and cost that using a traditional design build approach would, Hayes-McCoy said.
“To meet the requirements of the next-generation Air Force, fundamentally, Northrop Grumman must go beyond the traditional way. And we are doing that by implementing digital engineering, DevSecOps and Agile principles and practices across our portfolio.”