Flight Path

How Do We Prepare for Ever-Increasing Levels of System Complexity?


In 2012, I was asked to participate in the inaugural AIAA Complex Aerospace Systems Exchange, or CASE. That year CASE was held in conjunction with the AIAA Space Conference in Pasadena. I recall sitting on the beach on Monterey Bay wondering what I could possibly say that would get attendees thinking about system complexity and how, as aerospace engineers, to better design, develop, and test and evaluate increasingly complex space and aeronautical systems.

I remember seeing these freakishly long blackish tubes with a bulb on one end that had washed up on the beach. Never having been to Monterey before, I had no idea what they were. Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium the following day, I learned how kelp plants were the foundation upon which the entire Monterey Bay ecosystem is based. It dawned on me that I was amidst one of the most complex and dynamic systems on the planet. Think about it for a moment — on any given day, the bay is a stable system, albeit a complex one. Nature has a self-correcting way of dealing with emergent behavior associated with a complex system that would otherwise upheave, and possibly destroy, more fragile systems, certainly one less robust than Monterey Bay. As a result my message became that we, engineers, need to be inspired by bio-mimicry not only in singular design aspects, but in complex systems as well. Complex systems need to be as robust as possible, and designers and developers of those systems need to be adaptable to changing conditions, to external variables, and to the evolution of the system itself.

The inaugural CASE made a big splash, attracting several hundred participants who spent two days discussing aerospace system complexity. One topic covered at the 2012 event was a case study of the Air France 447 accident where a highly automated twin-aisle aircraft defied attempts, incorrect as it turns out, by the crew to avert disaster. At the second CASE in 2013, we flipped the script and focused on what is still a stunning aerospace success story — the successful entry, descent, and landing (EDL) of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover. You’ll recall that MSL was successfully placed on the surface via the untried skycrane system. Adam Steltzner, the engineer in charge of the MSL EDL, attributed the success of that mission to a dedicated team that was “personally respectful, but intellectually disrespectful.” It struck me that both Air France 447 and MSL show the importance of human–machine interaction and teaming in complex systems, regardless of the phase of the engineering project — design and development, test and evaluation, or operations. Both studies are also great examples of how CASE embraces the lessons inherent in success and failure.

Since those early exchanges, we have expanded our programming and have held CASE sessions at many AIAA forums. The CASE community has evolved to include both practitioners and theorists. We have a core of energized professionals from industry, government, and academia who organize events that attract those who research and develop approaches to the engineering of complex systems. We have also hosted workshops and panels on developing engineers and the engineering workforce to deal with complexity. The work of the CASE organizers will be vital to the future given the rapid state of technology convergence in aerospace.

However, we have not fully engaged our core target audience. We initially sought to attract aerospace chief engineers, program managers, and systems engineers who face important system development challenges. These are your colleagues and co-workers who probably don’t see AIAA as the organization that offers them practical tools that relate directly to their job responsibilities. Wilson Felder, in preparing for one of the early exchanges, correctly noted that designers, developers, testers, and program managers must be prepared to react with flexibility to changing requirements, opportunities for design modification, and insertion of new technology into previously designed systems. By concentrating on topics such as minimizing cost and schedule overruns, strategies for integration, test, and verification early in product life cycles, strategies for program management and integrated planning tools, we believe we are presenting and discussing the most relevant and pressing challenges that engineering organizations face as they deal with ever-increasing levels of system complexity.

As exemplified by Monterey Bay, with its spectacular biodiversity, remaining dynamically connected and balanced for the benefit of all inhabitants, the engineer of today must be prepared to think through the dynamic connectivity in engineered complex systems. Many of us know the hardware store jingle “Ace is the Place.” To borrow that jingle, CASE is the place — to increase your knowledge and hone your skills necessary to succeed in an era of ever-increasing system complexity. Please invite a colleague who you feel would benefit from an exchange of best practices associated with complex aerospace systems to the next CASE program. You, your colleague, your organization, and AIAA will all benefit. ★

How Do We Prepare for Ever-Increasing Levels of System Complexity?