Information Systems

New focus on safety in software

The Software Systems Technical Committee focuses on software engineering issues for complex and critical systems, including requirements, design, code, test, evaluation, operation and maintenance.

If there were a theme for software this year, it would be an increased focus on safe autonomy and cybersecurity.

Following the trends of previous years, military and commercial industries continued to increase investment in autonomy, especially learned autonomy. In March, Kratos’ autonomous fighter jet, the Valkyrie, completed its first flight. This was the first stage in an initiative to allow pilots to focus on more critical items by making fully autonomous fighter jets that can process large amounts of data rapidly without the human getting inundated with information. In May, Boeing’s
Tapestry Solutions
won a U.S. Air Force contract worth as much as $259 million for software that will help troops plan missions, including points for weapon launches. And in July, the Air Force increased focus on autonomy as its tanker planning software, designed to increase reliability in refueling, moved into testing.

The past year also saw more focus on cybersecurity in light of developments in airline vulnerability. The importance of hacking prevention was demonstrated in July when the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office said it would fine British Airways 183.39 million British pounds ($225 million) for a 2018 data breach that affected half a million of the airline’s customers. In March, technical issues in American Airports Corp.’s air-booking computers caused widespread delays. Though the problem was resolved, and computers were up within the hour, the incident further emphasized the importance of safety and redundancy in airline software.

Since 2010, the Air Force has been spearheading the military’s only jam-proof satellite network, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system. Through its work with the AEHF, the Air Force has amassed experience to begin production of a newer, cheaper, jam-resistant satellite communication framework. In August, the Air Force launched the fifth AEHF satellite.

A discussion of aerospace software would be incomplete without mentioning the Boeing 737 MAX 8. In the span of six months, two 737 crashes resulted in 346 deaths. The crashes implicated MCAS, short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a program designed to prevent stall. Though both aircraft that crashed had other initial failures in sensing and deriving the angle of attack, the crashes brought to light issues with implementing MCAS on the 737 MAX aircraft. After the planes were globally grounded in March, Boeing worked to create a software patch to prevent the problem from reoccurring. As of November, the planes were tentatively scheduled for a “phased ungrounding” and reintroduction into commercial air transit. The crashes and eventual pinpointing of the problem led to awareness about the FAA’s regulatory practices, putting increasing pressure on primary, interdependent safety reviews of all critical components in commercial aviation.

On a lighter note, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. As July 20 rolled around, NASA reflected on the software that assisted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in bringing the Eagle lunar lander down safely. A lot has changed since the 1960s in the software world. Computers no longer take up an entire room, embedded systems no longer have to be coded entirely in assembly, and in the 1980s, microprocessors were invented. However, the underlying purpose behind software remains the same. Just like the engineers of Apollo 11, engineers today strive to create efficient programs that assist humanity and make activities enjoyable, reliable and safe.

New focus on safety in software