Digital Twin Showcase: Perfecting In-Space Simulation On Earth

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In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) has the potential to be the defining technology of this century. In a report by the Space Growth Partnership [1], published in 2018, IOSM was identified as one of the key growth areas of the UK space industry. Not only does it offer huge commercial opportunities, but it also brings together a whole variety of different organisations from multiple sectors to create something which might see a significant revolution in technology and services.

In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) is the concept of robotically completing repairs, assemblies, and inspections of a Satellite, whilst it remains in orbit. Traditionally, this is completed by astronauts, which is high-risk to the individual, and high cost to the Satellite owner. IOSM is an emerging market within the space industry that offers huge opportunities from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to Lunar activities and beyond. One of the main purposes of IOSM is to provide inspections, repairs, assembly, and recycling of in-orbit satellites, thus contributing to and spurring on the commercialisation of space

Within the growing global space economy, In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing is expected to be worth $4.4 billion by 2030. With no dominant players, there is a real opportunity for the UK and next-generation space companies.

The drive towards digitally enabled robotic assembly and servicing offers a range of commercial benefits including reduced costs and improved functionality. This digitisation can be achieved by combining IOSM with a Digital Twin.

A Digital Twin is an exact replication of a physical product or system within a digital environment. The digital environment utilises real-time data about its processes and functionality, thereby enabling the modification of real-world systems through programmatic modifications.

Digital Twins can be applied to manufacturing, where the development of digital replications of products can be created by applying sensors to a physical asset. The monitoring of the systems allows for pre-emptive maintenance and repair work to be efficiently scheduled. Furthermore, system improvements or reconfigurations can thus be tested in a risk-free environment before committing them to the physical system. Each of these offers a reduction in costs for a satellite company, by allowing a company to plan more effectively with a life-like digital model.

To support the UK’s IOSM robotics development the Satellite Applications Catapult is implementing a Virtual Engineering Environment (VEE). The VEE is a suite of tools that support the physical IOSM robotics capability developed as part of the Catapult’s IOSM Facility at the Westcott Venture Park. The VEE will include a Digital Twin capability and Virtual Reality system. The development of the VEE provides a digital infrastructure that enables the design, ideation, simulation, and testing of a product. It is important to note that the VEE at Westcott is not a digital twin itself, rather it provides the tools that can be used individually or to create a digital twin of the facility.

The Westcott testing facility is a unique asset, as there are currently no other facilities that will offer the same level of accessibility and affordability to UK’s Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) and startups. Unlike other similar testing facilities that may exist, Westcott offers a comparable size to some of the larger world-leading facilities, with the added benefit of being more accessible and cost-effective for UK companies.

Existing facilities can be extremely costly to access, that is if they are even open to outside organisations, making it often impossible for developing businesses to compete with established larger organizations in the space industry. The IOSM facility at Westcott is a unique asset for testing and development, offering accessibility and affordability to UK’s SMEs and startups.

Furthermore, there is no facility currently available or known to be planned in the UK that could be used to test and develop technology and operations with satellites in space, which highlights the unique value proposition of the IOSM VEE.

The merging of digital twins and the technologies behind IOSM can offer a unique opportunity for UK-based SMEs and startups to pioneer innovative technologies and foster the digital twin environment. This will help drive the creation of open-source standards for the IOSM marketplace, and in turn, allow the UK to prepare itself for the commercialisation of space.