Metaverse in the Aerospace and Defense Sectors: What to Expect?
(Source: Defense-Aerospace.com; posted Sept. 22, 2022)

By Tim Maxwell
A Boeing test pilot flies the T-7A ground-based flight simulator. Boeing surprised the aviation community by claiming that its next aircraft would be “built in the metaverse,” raising the issue of how virtuality will impact the defense and aerospace sectors. (Boeing image)
PARIS --- Last December, Boeing surprised the aviation community by claiming that its next aircraft would be “built in the metaverse”. The concept of metaverse itself, despite becoming more frequently discussed in recent months, may remain unfamiliar to many.

As a matter of fact, this is largely due to the lack of a clear idea of what it entails, as argued by the New York Times and Wired journalist Eric Ravenscraft: “the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology.”

Roughly speaking, the metaverse corresponds to the idea of a virtual world, connecting users through their avatars, pretty much as in a virtual reality video game. Only this alternate reality would be thought of as to be closer to the actual real world than a game, not thanks to stunning graphics and game design but rather through a decentralized structure, the proper ownership of assets by users, and a scalable, evolving architecture enabling to constantly extend the range of experiences and functionalities available.

Cinephiles will obviously think of the “Oasis” from Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a movie released more than three years before Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook Company was becoming Meta, with the creation of metaverse as its guiding objective.

What exactly “building an airplane in the metaverse” means, however, is still unclear. Boeing’s Chief engineer Greg Hyslop told Reuters that he is “talking about changing the way we work across the entire company”, in order to enhance “quality from the supply base” and “minimize re-work”.

But Boeing, Airbus along with most aircraft manufacturers and their main suppliers have now been using the “digital twin” for several years already. With product lifecycle management solutions like Dassault Systèmes’ 3DX or Siemens’ TeamCenter, OEMs are able to design their products virtually, and keep digital record of all the related data through the entire life of the product.

This digitalization cuts design and development costs, and brings in AI-enabled tools and practices such as predictive maintenance and fuel cost management, by way of illustration. The digital process accounts for a 75% increase in first-time quality says Chuck Dabundo, Boeing vice president of the T-7 Program.

The metaverse differs from such tools in that it is not only about creating a virtual replica of the product, but inserting the virtual manufacturing activity into a broader geographical and interactive framework. As Boeing puts it, the metaverse could help building a single, integrated digital ecosystem of information.

It sounds smart, but the last time Boeing tried to build a global integrated supply chain was for the Dreamliner, and it did not prove an industrial success, to say the least.

Alongside a hypothetical in-metaverse digital twin, prototyping for testing customer preferences could for instance be an interesting use-case for aviation players, be they aircraft manufacturers or airliners. Yet, none of the proponents of metaverse for aerospace gets into such details when doing their praise.

In a recent Aviation Week podcast on the matter, two Accenture analysts used words like “metaverse”, “augmented reality” or “virtual reality” in an interchangeable manner, while referring to technologies like quantum computing, which to say the least are not at the core of the topic. For now, as far as aerospace is concerned, the “metaverse” is first and foremost a catchword, meant to give a thrill to investors and technology enthusiasts.

Let’s be honest: with Boeing being the only OEM explicitly positioning itself on the matter, trying to imagine what “building an airplane in the metaverse” would look like is pure speculation.

Other sectors in the aerospace universe have nonetheless brought up more concrete ideas, most notably airliners. It seems that Airbus itself has sensed that the real potential of the metaverse for aviation was much more to be found in travel-related uses than in the manufacturing process. In late April, the European OEM has launched a challenge with the innovation crowdsourcing platform HeroX, asking participants to imagine uses of the metaverse “to improve the passenger experience.”

Several carriers positioned themselves in the last months, with varying propositions. Vueling has partnered with the Spanish blockchain marketplace Iomob and the Next Earth metaverse to sale flights to Next Earth’s users directly in this virtual world. The Latvian airline AirBaltic, for example, decided to bet on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to create expositions of digital art pieces linked to their travel destinations. Big airlines in the Gulf have also joined the metaverse, with Emirates investing $10 million to “develop signature brand experiences in the Metaverse” in several ways, while Qatar Airways creating a QVerse in which customers can visit the check-in area, the aircraft… and meet a “MetaHuman” cabin crew!

The metaverse also seems to spur the interest of militaries. In April, the US Air Force has filed a patent application for a metaverse platform named Spaceverse, purposing to offer “synthetic and simulated extended reality training, testing and operations.”

In the UK, BAE Systems has teamed up with the supercomputing specialist Hadean to develop a next generation training solution, through a single environment combining the air, land, sea, space and cyber domains into the same simulation. In Asia, Korea Aerospace Industries has also unveiled a metaverse-based training system.

In a thorough article published by Breaking Defense earlier this year, Andrew Eversden suggests that a secure metaverse could host multinational or joint meetings for example, to share mission data remotely where VR helps every participant visualize the battlespace and interact more closely with each other.

While training of troops in a sophisticated, synthetic environment would be quite an obvious use case of the metaverse for militaries, a think-tank of the Chinese PLA recently released a paper about “metaverse warfare”, showing Beijing is envisioning metaverse as a space of cognitive warfare. This could be done, the report argues, through virtual attacks directly into the adversary’s metaverse, or by targeting its digital infrastructure. Militaries have historically been at the forefront of major innovations, and will undoubtedly seek to take advantage of the metaverse in every way they possibly can.

These multiple initiatives show the puzzling excitement surrounding the metaverse in aerospace. Financial analysts have issued staggering market foresight reports, with Grand View Research anticipating a $679 billion market for metaverse by 2030, a figure well below Goldman Sachs’ forecast for the same year, reaching $8tn to $13tn!

As for McKinsey, it states that the market impact of the metaverse on e-commerce alone will reach $2tn to $2.6tn by 2030, out of a total $5tn in the global economy. Such numbers should obviously be read extremely cautiously.

Mark Zuckerberg unveiling Meta was seemingly more motivated by the positive image it conveyed to shareholders than anything else. Asked about his impression on the matter in a recent webinar, Dirk Hoke -former Airbus Defense and Space CEO - stressed that Boeing’s statement came soon after Zuckerberg’s, but that the US company had been much more silent on the matter since the shares of Meta started to lose value again….

As for airlines, the metaverse appears much more like a marketing gadget than a proper commercial tool. As for simulations and training activities, the emerging offers look more serious but use augmented reality more than the metaverse itself, as illustrated by the recent in-flight virtual refuelling of a real fighter jet which pilot was wearing AR headsets.

Moving away from doubtful promises, important criticism can be voiced against the metaverse as Mark Zuckerberg and others want to build it. Being supposedly decentralized, its rules will inevitably be set by its developers, be they the founder of Facebook, the Chinese Communist Party or another entity.

Hence the interest for European states to create their own metaverse, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron… even though much of what is said today is probably smoke and mirrors.

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