Engineering

Agile Project Management in Aerospace

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Commercial aeroplane on a tarmac against a cloudy sky

More and more technical developers in the aerospace industry are now taking an Agile approach to project management, given its capability to deliver early and frequent iterations.

This is in sharp contrast to traditional ‘waterfall’ methods employed in the industry, that follow a sequential route—from planning, designing, building, and testing—wherein designers gather feedback only at the final phase. While sequential methods like this work well on engineering projects like bridges and buildings, they do not fit projects that depend on the ever-changing landscape of digital technology where quick adaptation and response is key. For this, Agile project management methodology is far more effective.

It’s not always easy to introduce an Agile method into an industry with a long-established and very security focused way of working, but having worked on several aerospace projects now, we’ve learnt methods to overcome some of the difficulties.

In this article, I’ll summarise my reflections on what we have learned in the process of introducing Agile project management methodology to the aerospace industry and what it means for the future in this sector.

Why Agile?

Although Agile started in software development, it’s now seen as a viable methodology for many industries—even in a hugely complex domain like aerospace. In fact, in 2018, a PwC study revealed that Agile projects are 28% more successful than those that follow traditional methods.

At Calvium, we’ve always been a fan of user-centred design, rapid prototyping and user testing, especially in order to try out new concepts and ideas.

We know that getting an understanding of the user, their workplace, and their workflow helps ensure that we can interpret the requirements of the project, as well as design a system that meets their needs. The Agile design approach is an accepted way of delivering usable, compelling and robust multi-platform systems in a timely manner.

We applied an Agile methodology to our Lost Palace digital placemaking project. We collaborated with Historic Royal Palaces, theatre-makers Uninvited Guests and interaction designers Chomko & Rosier to create an immersive experience for guests to hear, touch, and feel the past. The project was a huge hit with our audience and won in the Museums + Heritage Awards’ ‘Innovation’ category.

The adaptability that comes with an Agile methodology makes it all the more valuable for aerospace projects. Risks can be identified early on – reducing the chances of project failure. We can also pivot midway through the project should changes arise.

Challenges in Aerospace Project Management

Aerospace projects are already complex. Introducing Agile methodology into the process adds another layer of complexity that could pose a serious threat to the project’s success. However, with the right tools and insights, these risks can be mitigated. Below are some of the challenges we encountered and how we handled them.

White airliner in airport
Photo by Ern Low on Unsplash

1. The Process is Not Straightforward

In the context of aerospace and other high-security environments, project completion is not always straightforward. For instance, access to the workplace and data is highly restricted, making it impossible to shadow people, take photographs of their work setup, or observe what they are doing without the appropriate security clearance.

We have established a way of making this work by working closely with our clients, interviewing users away from their context and sharing our process with them so that they can be empowered to conduct user testing themselves.

We applied this process when we worked on a project for the United States Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and the US Marine Corps. In partnership with Rolls-Royce, we developed an app that allows users to track and record foreign object debris (FOD), a common cause of engine damage, using their smartphone cameras to send photos and GPS locations to a central database.

By working closely with Rolls-Royce and FOD airfield managers, we developed several iterations of the app which were user-tested in a restricted and secure way with real users at selected airbases. Being able to create a user-tested proof of concept and establish a process for our clients to do user testing themselves has been a breakthrough for unlocking innovation.

2. Data Security

To maximise data security, we were able to use the research testbeds that Rolls-Royce had at the Bristol and Bath Science Park. This allowed us to create a proof of concept system with a security-approved dataset in a replica IT setup, which could also be tested with users.

For one of our trials, we created a version of the app that will not use any WiFi. File transfer was also securely managed via a secure laptop with a physical cable. This was necessary to assure the trial site that a user trial would not compromise security. The trial was vital to demonstrate the advantages and potential of the app, and being able to accommodate this security requirement was vital to project completion and success.

3. On-site Policies

We also encountered several on-site policy issues. For one, many airbases prohibit the use of mobile phones around the planes for fear of interfering with onboard electronics systems.

Moreover, policy for access to internet or WiFi can be severely restricted on military bases. We were, however, able to adapt a solution by allowing the FOD mobile app to work securely offline and only connect when online access is secure and authorised.

Aerospace Project Execution Following Agile

Agile process diagram

Although there are several challenges to aerospace project management, Calvium has established a system to make this work with the help of Agile methods. We follow a three-step process that focuses on collaboration and co-creation:

1. Discovery

During the discovery phase, we take our time to collaborate with our clients and understand their brand, business, content, and technology—all of which are crucial in defining our project goals. We also identify personas and user stories, as we have always believed in user-centred design.

To make sure this phase is fully executed, we understand our users, their context, and what they are trying to achieve. We also identify any constraints and challenges we may face this early in the process (e.g. legislations, technology), so we can pivot as needed.

2. Agile Design and Development

During this phase, we design the user experience, develop initial concepts, rapidly create prototypes, and test each one with end users.

We also test different ideas and challenge how things are being done to come up with even more ideas. Afterward, we take our best concepts then build them into working prototypes. We refine and test again until we are satisfied with the result.

We typically deliver the first prototype in a few months. This helps the project team better understand the process and how our solution would work, which can then drive iterations to the first user test. It’s secure but still affords us the ability to test the value of a system before too much time and investment were spent.

When we get to the point where the results reach the parameters we set for the project, we start preparing to go live.

3. Delivery

It is in this phase where we fully develop the app for public or private distribution. We manage and maintain the entire process.

It’s not expected to be smooth sailing, but we’re are able to overcome difficulties by establishing a productive and trusted relationship with the IT team responsible for the Azure environment we use for back-end delivery.

We can gradually increase the number of users testing our apps through invitation using the Enterprise app distribution mechanisms. We also reuse standard password rules and user administration interfaces, as we develop more and more apps for a client. This helps speed up the delivery whilst maintaining security and high quality.

Slowly But Surely

The application of Agile management and methodology to aerospace projects does not have to be a sudden, sweeping change. Rather, it can be used to adapt and improve the current system, while gradually incorporating it into the existing process. I believe in time, it will become seen by the industry, not only as a workable alternative to more traditional project management approaches, but a more streamlined and effective alternative that is primed to adapt to rapid technological changes.