From bombsights to best practices

Silicon Valley software techniques modernize 75-year-old plant

A New York Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter lands at Raytheon's Indianapolis site, once used for manufacturing the Norden bombsight, to demonstrate new technologies that employees at the plant developed for the aircraft.

An old, brick building surrounded by a heavy iron fence sits on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Inside, corridors stretching several hundred feet run over wooden floorboards that dampened the vibrations of manufacturing the Norden bombsight, the then-advanced technology that helped the Allies win World War II.

It’s still a defense plant, but instead of building with metal and machines, more employees are building with the ones and zeroes that form modern software. The factory has transformed into an operation that's more Silicon Valley than Rust Belt, with engineers applying the latest Agile and DevOps techniques for rapid development.

Winning code

Working with a company called Pivotal Software, Raytheon’s Air Soldier team is now coding military software with techniques developed for mobile apps. The team is replacing the bulky, kneeboard computer systems used to fly U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters with commercial tablets and phones, helping pilots and soldiers stay connected while in combat.

The new technology helps aircrews to fly in poor visibility conditions, view digital moving maps, track friendly forces, detect obstacles and send and receive beyond-line-of-sight messages.

Raytheon Systems Engineer Sam Sauers and her team spearheaded one of the latest DevOps transformations on the program, introducing Silicon Valley-like processes like paired programming and pipeline development to help the Air Soldier team rapidly develop the technology.

“We’re using commercial software best practices, including Agile and DevOps, to get new capabilities in days instead of years,” said Sauers. “We’ve also been implementing user-centered design: getting ahead of the users and figuring out the next thing they’re going to need. We then develop toward that rather than getting something out there and getting feedback that it wasn’t what they wanted.”

Both Agile and DevOps put a priority on people and interactions over tools and processes. They emphasize constant communication within teams as well as with the customer. Teams meet frequently so everybody knows what everybody else is doing, creating a feedback loop that lets teams adjust based on what customers are telling them.

“It allows us to work with the customer to make immediate changes and adjustments based on user feedback, versus the standard waterfall and requirements-based methods that we used to do in the past,” said Mike Akers, Raytheon Air Soldier software lead.

It's an iterative approach to development, breaking down a large application into smaller chunks, and a cloud-based platform, speeds up software development because a bug in a small piece of code doesn't impact the whole application.

With a push of a button, the code goes through the DevOps pipeline where it’s tested, security scanned and staged for customer delivery, according to Akers. If your code doesn’t pass at any stage, the pipeline immediately lets you know.

“This is a huge change,” said Todd Probert, Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services vice president for C2, Space and Intelligence. “In just a couple years, we’ve transitioned from following the old model of developing custom-built tools to developing the infrastructure and software that will allow any soldier to download apps onto a smartphone, carry it with them onto the helicopter, and then share critical, real-time planning and tracking data with everyone else onboard.”

What does this mean for customers?

The iPhone completely changed what consumers expect from their handheld devices.

Consumers now expect that their devices will be constantly and immediately upgradeable through downloadable apps. They’re not going to buy devices that do one or two things. They want devices that can do everything.

“Soldiers who are joining the service now expect their...systems to be the same,” said Akers. “So instead of handing them a handheld device with the capabilities pre-loaded, we’ll give them a smart device and a suite of tools they can download and use as needed. And since those same soldiers expect their apps to be updated and refreshed regularly, that’s what we’ll be doing for them.”

Published On: 07/17/2019
Last Updated: 08/07/2019