Got a problem? Give it to an engineer.
Raytheon Technologies engineers take on tough problems across aerospace and defense
Software engineers at Raytheon BBN created a program that uses artificial intelligence to move military information efficiently through networks on land, in the air, at sea and in space.
Engineers at Collins Aerospace built a software-defined military radio that improves communication between otherwise incompatible systems.
Manufacturing engineers at Pratt & Whitney used digital technology to eliminate time-consuming searches for hard-copy information.
Engineers at Raytheon Missiles & Defense have integrated more than 30 platforms and systems that make the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyers the most advanced ships of their kind in the fleet.
When you get right down to it, all engineers have the same basic job description: They solve problems.
It doesn’t matter where they work, or in which discipline. Aerospace engineers, software engineers, electrical engineers, systems engineers – they all find ways to make things work to a set of requirements and despite the constraints of the physical world.
And while what they design is often fascinating, how they got there can be just as interesting – particularly at a company like Raytheon Technologies, where engineers work every day to push the limits of aerospace and defense technology.
Here, engineers from across the company walk through the hard problems they’ve solved, and how they did it.
Connecting the battlefield
The problem: Military sensors generate massive amounts of information that can make the difference between a failed mission and a successful one. But limited connectivity and other factors make it hard to move that information between the military domains of land, air, sea and space.
The systems that collect information were built differently and on separate networks. It’s Samuel Nelson’s job to make them talk to each other.
How does he do it? Software engineering.
The solution: “My specialty is really communication in challenged environments,” said Nelson, a senior scientist at Raytheon BBN. “How do we allow interoperability between all the existing sensors, networks and applications that are already out there so the warfighter can ask questions and get answers?”
Historically, Nelson said, networks have served as pipes that move information from one point to another. Now, with more powerful computers and more devices on the network, there are expanded options for delivering information faster than ever.
“The pipes don’t really care about what they’re moving,” he said. “We’re trying to switch that so that the network itself is a participant in moving, organizing and managing that content. The network now plays a role in trying to figure out who needs what and where content needs to be.”
They needed to create software that would allow the network to find the most efficient way to transport data – like a traffic app finding the quickest route.
The case study: Nelson, who has a doctorate in computer science, works on a team that successfully demonstrated software at the Air Force Research Laboratory that would allow all users on a network to request information and receive what they’re authorized to see.
The software is called the Robust Information Provisioning Layer, or RIPL. It uses advanced disruption and ad hoc networking protocols – methods of connecting previously unlinked networks in challenging environments – along with machine learning and artificial intelligence.
To prove they could overcome limited connectivity and improve delivery speeds while maintaining security, the team simulated a conflict at a lab in Rome, New York, using tactical radios on different networks, locations, and mission divisions. They installed software on laptops to create an overarching network that allowed the radios to communicate.
“RIPL could dynamically find new paths through the system,” Nelson said, “using whatever assets are available to route critical data.”
RIPL is a proof-of-concept. But, if implemented, it could benefit the U.S. Air Force’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control, a U.S. military initiative to synchronize operations across sea, air, land and space.
Nelson, who came to Raytheon BBN from academia, said he’s proud of the team for taking existing research a step farther and creating software that could save lives.
“It’s fulfilling to see research come to fruition in the field in a proof-of-concept setting,” he said. “I think that’s what Raytheon BBN, in particular, excels at.”
“The network now plays a role in trying to figure out who needs what and where content needs to be.”
Samuel Nelson | Senior Scientist | Raytheon BBN
Making manufacturing more efficient
The problem: Manufacturing aircraft parts like turbine engine blades and vanes has many steps, from deciding their dimensions to determining which machines will be used to cut, coat and inspect them. Historically, through each of those steps, workers have had to sift through numerous documents to find the information they need to make decisions and complete their tasks.
That method is time-consuming and subject to human error, so manufacturing engineer Michael Gwara and his team at Pratt & Whitney, a Raytheon Technologies business, wanted a way for employees to find exactly the information they needed with only a few clicks.
“Imagine a future state where we use 3D digital models to design, manufacture and inspect aircraft engines,” Gwara said. “It’s a massive leap forward from our historical way of defining products with 2D blueprints.”
The solution: Gwara, working with colleagues in design and quality across Pratt & Whitney, implemented what’s known as a “model-based enterprise” strategy, where a single 3D model contains all the information needed to manufacture a product.
The software they use provides a digital record, or thread, of what’s been done and steps that remain. Users can also see exactly how a part will look without having to create a physical model.
“At the tip of your fingers, you can see exactly what operations, what plant, what department, what piece of tooling went into the manufacture of a product, what revision of a program was used, how the part was inspected. You can see it being manufactured digitally and how well your process performs,” Gwara said. “It’s the creation of a very reliable single source of truth that is extended to every organization that may touch it. They all have access to this digital twin of the manufacturing process and the factory.”
The digital process – something engineers have envisioned for ages – is now possible thanks to technology that has matured quickly in the past decade.
“When I was starting out as an engineer, there was a lot of manual work – transcribing data from blueprints, writing work instructions, making a part in a development cell to see if it was producible,” Gwara said. “It wasn’t really until the past couple of years that the tools matured to the point where it’s like, ‘Wow, the stars kind of like aligned to go after this now.’ We’re starting to be able to reap the rewards.”
The case study: Gwara’s team is introducing the program at Pratt & Whitney’s new advanced manufacturing facility in Asheville, North Carolina. The 1.2 million square-foot facility uses advanced technology to produce parts sustainably and efficiently in support of engines including the Pratt & Whitney GTF and F135.
After whittling millions of lines of code to thousands and modeling the process for a handful of products, they will deploy the system among manufacturing and quality engineers who produce turbine engine blade and vane components.
Gwara remembers presenting the system to some of its early users at the manufacturing facility. He asked a classroom full of employees to find a part number. Half used the new system, and half used the traditional hard copies.
Within seconds, digital users had the information requested while the others were still searching.
“While that’s a very easy thing to use as an example,” Gwara said, “it goes to show how quickly you can find requirements in the system, how easy it is to interpret those requirements, and then how easily those can be communicated with little training.”
For Gwara, it’s rewarding when data empowers people to do their jobs more efficiently.
“Data is the key to success. It’s the key to making smart business decisions and smart engineering decisions,” Gwara said. “Digital technology is the key to making folks’ lives better.”
“Data is the key to success. It’s the key to making smart business decisions and smart engineering decisions. Digital technology is the key to making folks’ lives better.”
Michael Gwara | Manufacturing Engineer | Pratt & Whitney
A more flexible military radio
The problem: Imagine needing a different device for every type of communication. One cellphone for calls. Another for texts. A few more for emails and Bluetooth connections.
Military personnel don’t have to imagine that problem. They live it every day. Each service has radios that don’t communicate with others – sometimes across the joint force, sometimes even within the same branch.
Engineers at Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business, are working to fix that.
“Rather than have three radios,” senior engineering manager Sam van der Hoeven said, “can we use some cleverness to combine them?”
The solution: As van der Hoeven explains it, radios have historically been designed to perform a single task as efficiently as possible. They communicate across a single waveform dedicated to a specific type of data, with the minimum required power and weight.
Today, with more advanced processors, engineers can build radios that meet military requirements, but also communicate over more than a dozen waveforms. They’re known as software-defined radios, but they’re more like modern mobile devices, with their ability to perform many tasks and add new capabilities through software upgrades.
That sounds simple. The challenge is designing one that’s secure, reliable, flexible in combat and able to support upgrades more efficiently than what’s out there today.
“(The waveforms) are all so different from each other, so to support one without making it impossible to support the other is a real challenge,” van der Hoeven said. “It’s also very difficult to build hardware that can support technologies that don't exist yet. It requires some imagination.”
With some imagination and a few years of experimentation, the team built FlexLink, the first radio of its kind to be integrated onto U.S. Army platforms.
The case study: In December 2022, the FlexLink team successfully demonstrated that the radio could connect multiple air and ground platforms during a test flight. They installed the prototype on U.S. Army UH-60M helicopters and used it to relay information across more than 200 nautical miles, four joint service networks and multiple security levels.
The prototype demonstration was also validation of the Project Convergence concept – the Army’s contribution to the Department of Defense’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative, which aims to synchronize communications between military branches.
FlexLink is based on open-systems architecture, meaning that its parts come from several vendors and that components can be added or modified. For customers, that means they can easily adjust their radios to address new needs.
“Rather than having a kind of proprietary, walled-garden way of doing things, we’re developing these products so they can interoperate with other hardware,” said Travis Niec, a principal engineer working on the project.
Open-systems architecture is still an emerging technology in radio, and the team plans to continue refining FlexLink as it moves from the prototype phase into the customers’ hands.
Niec has worked on radio products at Collins Aerospace for 20 years. Working with this emerging technology, he said, was a welcome opportunity to build something from scratch and shape the future of tactical radios.
“This was kind of exploring new territory,” Niec said, “so it was really exciting.”
“Rather than having a kind of proprietary, walled-garden way of doing things, we’re developing these products so they can interoperate with other hardware.”
Travis Niec | Principal Engineer | Collins Aerospace
Integrating an advanced warship
The problem: The U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyers are the largest ships of their kind in the service – and also the most advanced.
They weigh 16,000 tons. They’re as long as the Space Needle in Seattle is tall. But they’re also technological marvels – they appear on radar about as large as a fishing boat, and inside, more than 30 platforms and systems work together to enable their advanced capabilities.
Raytheon Technologies is responsible for integrating that hardware and software – right down to individual lines of code – so that it all works seamlessly.
The solution: The Zumwalt-class destroyers are a prime example of Raytheon Technologies’ work in systems integration. More than 200 engineers are assigned full-time to making sure the ship’s various parts work together as intended.
“What the teams do on a day-to-day basis in terms of solving individual problems all contributes to bringing the ship alive,” said John Bagley, the chief engineer and technical director for the total ship integrated systems team at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business. “The ability for the ship to conduct its mission depends on the operation of that individual system.”
Alex Alvarez is one of those engineers. After majoring in aerospace engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he joined Raytheon Missiles & Defense’s integrated weapons and sensors team. He works on Zumwalt’s Identification Friend or Foe software, which allows the ships’ radars to determine whether something they’ve detected is a threat and uses the resulting data to inform how operators respond.
“The radar itself sort of scans a target, and it’ll give us information about that target based on how we scan it,” Alvarez said, “but then the software has to take that information, do some calculations, and make informed decisions about how we want to react. We’re working to make sure that everything is correctly flowing up to the operators.”
The case study: Raytheon Missiles & Defense was recently awarded a contract to complete the activation and modernization of the three Zumwalt-class destroyers, with the work scheduled for completion in 2027. Bagley has been with the company since Zumwalt’s beginnings in the early 2000s and said the project has always represented cutting-edge technology.
“She was always envisioned to be groundbreaking in the capabilities she can bring to the U.S. Navy – that vision has never changed over the 20-year lifespan,” Bagley said. “It’s very rewarding to see something in paper form way back in the beginning when I was involved on the program to now where you can walk on board a ship and look at all the systems that have been delivered by Raytheon.”
Once the ships are activated, he said, Raytheon Technologies engineers will continue finding ways to improve technology and integrate new systems.
“It was exciting when we were working on it at the very beginning,” Bagley said, “and for those engineers that are on the program now, it’s just as exciting for all the interesting things that Zumwalt is going to go off and do.”
“What the teams do on a day-to-day basis in terms of solving individual problems all contributes to bringing the ship alive.”
John Bagley | Chief Engineer, Total Ship Integrated Systems | Raytheon Missiles & Defense