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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Aero-Astro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2007–2008 issue of Aero-Astro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Learning innovation dynamics is key to aerospace capability

By Annalisa L. Weigel

There are immense challenges in complex system architecture modeling and simulation, and in coordinating change among stakeholders.

Annalisa Weigel's research program was inspired by her MIT studies, her work in the defense department's Space Architect office, and by Carl Sagan.
(William Litant photograph)

Annalisa Weigel

I was 8 years old and watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series on PBS. His journey through the marvels of the universe and the place of our tiny planet within it captivated me. I was hooked. Of course my interests have evolved some since then, but that was the initial spark that really set me on the path in aerospace that I’m on today.

The beginning of my formal education in aerospace began here at MIT where I was an undergraduate in Aero-Astro. Upon finishing my degree, I took a job with a small aerospace engineering consulting firm in the Washington, DC area. Luck and timing landed me an assignment in the center of an exciting new office in the Defense Department, called the Space Architect, tasked with creating and evaluating future architectures for space systems that spanned the military, intelligence, and civil space communities. I was exposed to the immense challenges involved in the modeling and simulation of complex system architectures, in coordinating change across multiple stakeholders with diverse interests, and in weaving considerations of policy into system design. I also became keenly aware of how much more we had yet to learn as a community of practitioners and scholars to better meet these challenges. And that’s how I found myself back in graduate school and eventually joining the faculty, desiring to make an impact in these important areas.

My research program, inspired by these early experiences working on problems of both a technical and policy nature, is focused on three related themes: dynamics of complex systems architectural change and innovation in aerospace systems; the role of government in fostering aerospace innovation and change; and decision processes driving the policy and technical aspects of aerospace systems. However, understanding these dynamics, as well as the proper role for the government, holds the key to near- and long-term advancement of our aerospace system capabilities. And understanding decision processes underlying the technical and policy choices in the aerospace domain is a necessary foundation for this work.

Distributed space systems promise flexibility

In the space systems area, my research group is examining new distributed space system architectures that promise more flexibility for end users than current monolithic architectures. These new distributed architectures, dubbed “fractionated architectures” by DARPA, would break apart the subsystems and payload of a conventional spacecraft into several physically separated, free flying modules in proximity on orbit. One module might provide communications and data handling, another would provide power generation and storage, another might house the payload, and so on. We create physics-based parametric models to quantify the performance and flexibility of fractionated spacecraft architectures, and compare them to traditional monolithic architectures. We have found that fractionated architectures are more maintainable, scalable, adaptable, upgradeable, and flexible. And, under certain scenarios of large-scale deployment of fractionated architectures industry-wide, our cost modeling found that they may be cheaper than current monolithic architectures due to significant economies of scale.

But, taking a new architecture from concept to reality in the space arena requires more than just understanding its technical merits and user utility. Institutional barriers, organizational inertia, industry and market structure, and government policies and behaviors all play a role in creating the environment in which architecture change and innovation take place. So, we complement our technical performance, user utility, and cost analysis of new space system architectures with descriptive and normative theory building about how innovation and architecture change happen for space systems. In the process of understanding the dynamics of change, we are trying to answer questions about the impact of the space system monopsony market structure on innovation, and how new architectures might change the market structure in ways favorable to innovation. We are also concerned with the complex mission-critical nature of space systems as a technical product, and how these characteristics differentiate innovation for space systems from the well-studied cases of innovation in simpler consumer products.

Nick Roy and autonomous wheelchair

While performing engineering and technical analyses, Annalisa Weigel (center) and her students examine aerospace systems’ political, economic, and social aspects. (William Litant photograph).

Air transportation architectures examined

In the air transportation area, my research group is examining the architectural change dynamics of new airspace surveillance and communications architectures for air traffic control. The United States has just formally announced a move from radar-based surveillance to GPS-based surveillance with the mandate for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technologies to be deployed throughout the national airspace control infrastructure by 2014, and required in aircraft by 2020. We draw on analytical methods from stakeholder analysis, network theory, game theory, and markets theory to construct models of airborne equipage and ground infrastructure transition. These models allow us to understand the distribution of costs and benefits among stakeholders where network effects are prominent, and examine policy and market mechanisms for more equitably aligning in time and scale the costs and benefits among stakeholders. We also explore the dynamics of architecture transition in a multi-stakeholder semi-regulated environment, examining the motivations of stakeholders, the effects of information asymmetries, and policy mechanisms that may work to resolve intransigence concerning architecture change.

At the end of the day, the results of our research aim to inform decision makers in both the government and industry sectors of the aerospace community about the dynamics of architecture change and innovation in the unique context of complex space and air transportation systems. Through deeper knowledge of these underlying innovation dynamics, better policies can be crafted to foster the change needed to continue to grow our aerospace system capabilities well into in the 21st century.

Annalisa Weigel is the Jerome C. Hunsacker Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of Engineering Systems in the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. She received her S.B. and S.M. in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and her Ph.D. from MIT’s Engineering Systems Division. Her research interests include aerospace policy, aerospace systems architecting and design, innovation and change dynamics in the aerospace industry, and systems engineering. She may be reached at

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