Reflection and Takeaways on Agility from the SMC-IT 2018 Space Mission Design conference

Reflection and Takeaways on Agility from the SMC-IT 2018 Space Mission Design conference

Reflection and Takeaways on Agility from the SMC-IT 2018 Space Mission Design conference

By Tom Friend – Agile Consultant / LtCol USAF (Ret)

The 6th International Conference on Space Mission Challenges for Information Technology, held in Alcala de Henares, Spain, brought together scientists, engineers, and researchers from NASA, the European Space Agency, universities and industry.

Case studies on how agile methodologies have been applied to mission planning and how scrum has been used in spacecraft construction were discussed, as well as topics such as developing and delivering software, reliability and reuse of software, onboard processing, and communication.

Representing Scrum, Inc. as a keynote speaker, I opened the conference with “Scrum to the Stars” which looked back into aviation history and to the future of innovation in aerospace, and how Scrum methodologies have been, and will continue to be effective tools.

Iterative discovery has been at the core of aviation exploration since the dawn of flight. Whether it was the first aeronauts in balloons, or the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, explorers of flight used processes that built on incremental failures and successes. Aerospace design processes were modified as improvements to flight technology were discovered, and the knowledge base expanded. Empiricism and Incremental improvement evolved as a standard path to improvement.  This standard path emerges as patterns.  For example Interfaces in small satellites are deliberately over-designed to reduce need for disruptive renegotiation.  The pattern of S\simple pre-negotiated physical bus structure for data and power increase design versatility, and loose production coupling.  One of the most significant scructural patterns is that of standard adapters allows objects with incompatible interfaces to work together by wrapping its own interface around that of an already existing interface.  These are just some of the patterns that when combined defines the evolving path to improvement.

In essence, Scrum was there at the start of aerospace exploration. Over the years, as systems have increased in size and complexity, common sense has been lost, and projects hit overruns in both time and money spent. By utilizing an Agile framework, you can break down these complex systems into smaller pieces that can then be integrated into the whole design. The step-by-step, incremental approach can be an effective time and cost management tool.

Today the trend in space exploration is making small satellites. Frequently, these small satellites are part of a larger mission.  In doing this, risk is reduced by breaking a complex mission into parts and delivering it in smaller submission components. Think of it as component architecture with your software systems, same pattern. The end deliverable: small satellites that are tailored to a particular mission.

This approach complements Agile planning where focus is on delivering small increments of value and dedicated Scrum teams to build and deliver the satellites.   The success and low cost of small satellites with focused space missions is now mainstream with a standard type of microsatellite called, “CubeSat” that follows set size and weight requirements. This standard is a simple 6-page document keeping with the Agile tradition of minimum viable documentation.

CubeSats by necessity have evolved to leverage many Scrum in Hardware Patterns to speed development and reduce costs. This conformance to patterns has created a whole cottage industry of commercial off the shelf (COTS) suppliers.  They provide hardware and software systems and components that can be used together like LEGOs because they have standard power, size, bussing, and know stable interfaces that allow them to be configured quickly and with low expense.

One of my favorite ways to demonstrate how effective Scrum can be in a hardware setting is a class I give using the CubeSat format. This class is generally offered in a 6-hour format, and is very hands on. In this course, we build a 3D paper CubeSat with a specific mission. All the steps from mission design, roadmap, and components are broken down into a backlog and worked by a scrum team to deliver a fully functional model.  We then walk through the launch and operation of the CubeSat, discussing what each component is doing as it circles the table in the middle of the room that represents Earth.

This simple class exercise using scrum to build components and the visualization of talking through a mission shows how prototyping lets you see problems with design early and builds shared understanding on the team.  These are lessons that you can take back to your own teams to make them even better.




About the Author

Tom Friend is an accomplished Agile consultant, trainer, and coach with 23 years’ experience leading software development teams in various industries to include federal, banking, cable, telecommunications, and energy. He has 12 years of hands on Agile / XP / Scrum software development experience.  He is a distinguished graduate from Air War College and has a BS in Aeronautics.