Top 5 Systems Engineering Wonders in the United States

Happy Fourth of July everyone! With Fourth of July less than a week away, we at SPEC Innovations want to celebrate the birth of our nation with a tribute to some of its greatest achievements in systems engineering. The United States has been a leading technological innovator for hundreds of years, as the first country to fly a plane, land on the moon, and develop a super-computer. All of these innovations took planning, requirements management, analysis, verification and validation, and of course modeling to bring them to fruition. Today, we want to focus on the systems engineering accomplishments that helped fuel American innovation. Here’s our picks for the top 5.


#1 GPS

Developed in the 70s by the Department of Defense, GPS is a major tool for both the military and civilian realm. Google Maps alone is a major lifesaver, but its impact on scientific research, surveillance, banking, mobile phone operations, and more is undeniable.

Systems engineering played a major role in GPS. In a 2007 case study, Patrick O’Brien and John Griffin extracted four learning principles that can be applied to systems engineering more broadly. These principles – filling key positions with experts, maintaining program baselines, gaining high-level support/advocacy on a consistent basis, and managing risk throughout the lifecycle – helped make GPS a success.

Systems engineering also plays a role in the day-to-day operations of GPS. From the world-wide satellite control network to Google Maps, GPS demands require the expertise of a systems engineer. Requirements management, verification and validation, etc., all play a key role in a smooth operation.

#2 UAV

Like GPS, UAVs have seen ever-increasing use in both civilian and military contexts. First mass-produced by the Radioplane Company during World War II, and later used during the Vietnam War, UAVs now comprise nearly one in three aircraft deployed by the USAF today. Commercial drones, such as quadcopters, have also seen widespread popularity, in fields such as recreation, aerial photography, and even farming. Companies like Amazon have even begun delivering packages with drones. The exciting potential of UAVs is beginning to be realized, thanks to good systems engineering.

Successful UAV design requires a good approach to systems engineering. The high costs and risks of UAVs pose a significant challenge, which is why UAVs are best tackled with an integrated lifecycle. Everything from planning to modelling need to be carefully resolved.

#3 Space Launch Systems

In 2011, NASA announced its successor to the Space Shuttle: The Space Launch System (SLS). This new shuttle is planned to be NASA’s primary spacecraft, designed to send humans into deep space and capable of producing up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust (more power than any other rocket before). Some predict that SLS will be the most capable super-heavy lift vehicle ever built.

Systems engineering has been integral to SLS development. Because of SLS’s high energy demands, high costs, mass limitations, and extensive use of existing subsystem designs/hardware, a Systems Engineering and Integration Operating Model has made engineering the SLS through development, verification and validation, and operations much more effective.

#4 Internet

Few innovations have changed the world to the same degree as the Internet. It has revolutionized commerce, culture, and society, with technologies that were once pipe dreams (such as instant messaging, video calls, social networking services, and online shopping) now considered commonplace. The Internet finds its origins in ARPANET, developed in the 1960s by the Department of Defense as the first wide-area packet-switching network and one of the first networks to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite.

The Internet that we know today was built by Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist working from the innovations of APRANET. Berners-Lee was working at CERN in the 1980s when the idea of a universal documentation system fascinated him. In March 1989, he wrote the first proposal to engineer such a system:

With this bit of systems engineering and the foundation ARPANET had laid, Berners-Lee created the Internet, and forever changed the world because of it.

#5 Nuclear Power

The United States has been a leader in nuclear power plants since the 1940s. In September 1948, a nuclear reactor powered on a light bulb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, marking the first time a nuclear reactor had ever generated electricity. Nine years later, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania – the world’s first full scale power station exclusively devoted to electricity production – was connected to the power grid. These innovations have kept America at the forefront of nuclear power.

Systems engineering is crucial for a safe and successful nuclear power plant. Every step in the system, from the nuclear reactor to the steam turbines, poses a challenge that systems engineers must solve. Many people have expressed concerns about nuclear power’s potential for danger. Systems engineers will need to work rigorously to reduce that potential for danger.


American innovations have advanced technology in radical ways. Whereas technologies such as GPS or the Internet were the thing of science fiction a few decades ago, today these things are a part of the everyday. The backbone to all these innovations – from Google Maps to quadcopters to your Twitter feed – is good systems engineering.