Perhaps you have a friend like this, a certifiable professional geek who helps to manage the technical (read: computer) complexity that’s become a way of life. My “smart” phone reverted back a few generations and wasn’t behaving as intelligently as usual. Google wisdom offered, “It does that and if you reboot, the problem usually goes away.”
My friend had a simpler strategic explanation:
“Welcome to my world of buggy software. This stuff is so complex any more it is almost beyond human comprehension. They modularize the system as much as possible with the published system calls ‘supported between modules’ and hope it all works together correctly. And testing only confirms the presence of defects, never the absence of defects…
You can always find people who understand how a particular system module works, or even a sub-system (a collection of a few modules, e.g., memory management) but the WHOLE system…not really.”
We are seeing increasing levels of software in our aviation hardware, and most of the time it works beautifully, but sometimes it’s a bridge too far in my opinion. A few points for your consideration as we look to the future:
In May, an Airbus A400M 4-engine turboprop (similar to a C-130) crashed on takeoff when 3 of the 4 engines suffered what Airbus called “power frozen” after lift-off, and failed to respond to the crew’s efforts to regain control.
A British newsletter, The Register, noted:
“People familiar with the investigation said the torque calibration parameters for the engines were wiped during the installation. This data is needed to measure and interpret information coming back from the A400M’s engines, and is crucial for the Electronic Control Units (ECU) that control the aircraft’s power systems.
Without that sensor data, the ECU automatically shut down the engines, or at least put them into the lowest power settings. According to safety documentation, the pilots would only get a warning from the ECUs when the aircraft is 400 feet (120 meters) off the ground.”
Not exactly inspiring confidence, and they don’t fly well on one engine apparently.
From Fortune magazine:
“United Airlines unveiled a program designed to award free frequent flier miles to potential hackers who could break into the company’s mobile applications and websites. The company said that the program would not be open to hackers wanting to crack into an airplane’s Wi-Fi or on-board entertainment, or control systems…
According to the Wall Street Journal report, Boeing has also turned to outside security experts to uncover security bugs. As part of a security program, the airline maker is paying friendly hackers to break into the onboard software of its 787 Dreamliner.”
So the theory is that if a hacker has enough confidence in the onboard aircraft systems to cash in his frequent flyer miles, it’s good enough for the friendly sky folks. But don’t mess with the entertainment stuff—that’s where the real money is!
From the NY Times a few months back:
“Federal regulators will order operators of Boeing 787 Dreamliners to shut down the plane’s electrical power periodically after Boeing discovered a software error that could result in a total loss of power.”
Sort of similar to my cell phone – reboot and your problems will go away.
Just this morning, CNN reported that United Airlines was handwriting tickets as they grounded all flights. CNN said, “United spokesmen were not available for comment, but the airline’s Twitter account responded to customer complaints, saying, ‘We are working on getting you to your destination as quickly as possible.’”
Hmmm…this happened over the winter as well. Must be a bad module—again.
I don’t mind an occasional blank avionics screen, especially if there is redundancy, but the engine(s) and flight control systems need to be 100%, or at least 99.9999%. For GA aircraft there are unconfirmed rumors that the brightest minds are thinking about fly-by-wire. If you’ll pardon the pun, we’ve had it for a century—good old stainless steel wires (or occasionally pushrods) that work beautifully well, is stone simple, and relatively cheap. Don’t need to hire hackers to try to break the system. Don’t need to reboot it or wonder what it’s going to do next. It just works. It does need some adjustment occasionally but if reasonably maintained, will not fail catastrophically due to a module mix-up or a packet going POOF. Any A & P can fix/maintain it.
As noted by United’s latest SNAFU, the problem is becoming more pervasive—can you say, U.S. Government hacks?
But, back to our corner of the aviation world, I like simplicity—especially when it works. More isn’t better! I’d rather the best government, academic, and industry minds come up with an economic/engineering model to build quality light aircraft in affordable quantities so the companies can make some money and pilots can afford to buy and operate new ones. Maybe that makes software complexity look like child’s play, but it’s something the industry could certainly use.
What do you think?