Altavian Blog

Reducing Acquisition Cost through an Open System Architecture


What is an open system architecture? It’s the type of phrase you hear all the time, without fully understanding it; one that tugs at that understanding as something that ought to be intuitive but is never explicitly defined. The Department of Defense nails it down with one fundamental question:

“Can one or more qualified third parties add, modify, replace, remove, or provide support for a component of a system, based on open standards and published interfaces for the component of that system?”

An open system architecture is when a third party can replicate, add to, and improve a system because of open standards and the published interfaces of that system. In short, you’re providing open access to the blueprints of the car’s engine to see if there’s another bright idea out there to make it go faster.

The goal behind using an open system architecture is to boost innovation and increase competition. By taking the design element out from under the hood of one company and one team, you’re dramatically increasing the number of minds trying to think of a way to improve the design, and thus sparking innovation. With that new innovation, competition will grow keeping the technology from becoming stagnant and reducing prices. As Steve Jobs said in a Business Week interview back in 2004:

“What’s the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself?”

This mentality, the mentality of open system architecture, runs contrary to the status quo of traditional defense companies. Traditional defense companies recoil at the idea of third parties and balk at the idea of the Government owning critical intellectual property. This is seen as making concessions to competition and surrendering competitive advantages.

We see things differently. We see an open architecture system as enabling collaboration. The next generation of technology is being driven by passionate engineers who believe in the power of collaboration. Not only does an open architecture system foster collaboration, but they leave the outcome of competition to market forces, reducing the cost of acquisition. Advancing defense technology, increasing capabilities, and fostering innovation does not require an ever-growing defense budget; it requires opening the defense market to competition.

However, it’s important to appreciate the level of complexity behind the “systems” in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

Building the Architecture

The first step to building an open systems architecture for Group I (55 lbs and below) UAS is to work in collaboration with industry partners and government customers. We need to analyze the key areas and relationships within the system.

1. What are the distinct functional elements of the system that can be arranged into subsystems that are self-contained? This organizes the system into functional subsystems that have high cohesion (do one thing, do it well) and low coupling (do it independently).

2. What are the information and electromechanical dependencies that remain between the subsystems that can be standardized? This defines the interfaces in the system that allow each subsystem to be independently designed and upgraded using only the interface definition.

3. What are the modules that can aggregate the functional subsystems into components that have a similar replacement, upgrade, or maintenance cycle? This ensures that the business case for developing and implementing technology is matched to the ability of the customer to procure that particular technology.

These questions are utilized to advise a Model Based Engineering approach. In short, this approach, based on the requirements of the government customer, provides logical answers as to the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ the architecture is implemented. This supports traceability and accountability for the certification and performance of the systems as per customer requirements as well as the ability to revise architecture over time.

The ability to document, trace, modify, and revise a system over time is what ultimately reduces the cost of acquisition for these systems: competition can be dictated not by who owns the best piece of intellectual property, but rather by who has the best idea for any given piece of intellectual property. The cost advantage is readily apparent through examination of the evolving defense industry.

The Cost Advantage

Through technically enabling component interfacing, subcomponent vendors can now compete for contracts with that program office, bypassing the requirement to work through the OEM of the system. As stated in the National Defense Magazine: “Open architecture supports a business model that allows the Defense Department to leverage collaborative innovation from multiple vendors across many programs. When vendors create products that conform to well-defined standards, agencies can use a capability across a portfolio of programs.” By utilizing anopen architecture, the government inherently changes the balance of power between the OEM/Sole Source Supplier of the system and the Program Office. A DoD publication titled Guidelines for Creating and Maintaining and Competitive Environment for Supplies and Services in the Department of Defense reinforces this with this statement: “Open system architectures also may be used to overcome barriers to competition by applying open standards and open business model principles.”

Interoperability standards allow for the procuring agency to control costs by allowing vendors to come in with replacement parts and enable contracts for subsystems. Altavian has seen this first hand on Group I SUAS. In 2012 the Army’s Small Unmanned Program Office issued a multi-source competitive bid IDIQ for the FoSUAS. Their goal was to induce competition on these systems, but the problem was that with the proprietary nature of the current systems it was simply too costly to force-fit electrical components into another proprietary system. Never the less, Altavian was able to second-source the complete set of Aerostructures and some other ancillary parts not requiring the proprietary protocols, and in doing so brought acquisition costs down by estimates of up to 40% on these parts.

This is why we invite partners to participate with us. We support programs that embrace the objectives of open system architecture because we believe in delivering value to our customers with working, complete systems that meet the mission objective.