Saturday, November 13, 2010

Airbus jets - not the A380 oil leaks, something worse... Software?

Something caught my eye yesterday. My day job is in software, mainly in testing. Anyone who will listen to my droning on this subject will know I have huge worries about the reliance we place now, and will in the future, on embedded software systems (e.g. Google's recent trials of a driverless car in California).

It seems airbus has more than mechanical troubles (recent A380 oil fire and the rather journalist friendly shots of bits of engine cowling). Mechanical issues don't worry me enormously as they get fixed (this is a very rare error on Rolls Royce's part), but what is happening to some A320 series airlines worries me enormously.

Now, it could be electrical, but the idea that at any point cockpit systems, including computers, might just "wink out" scares the living daylights out of me. These planes are exclusively fly by wire. Do they have manual backups? And even if they do, do the pilots still have the skills to pilot a plane whose aerodynamic profile is at least partly compensated for by auto stabilization systems? God, I hope so.

If it's software, it would feed into my software engineer tinfoil hat paranoia about software in everyday life; I'm perilously close to choosing the devices I use and rely on by their reliance on embedded software and not upgrading where possible. I'm starting to think I should get a pre-1974 car, a very old washing machine, and extremely cheap TV... Where could it end?

We don't fly often, which is a comfort, and I'm actively considering next summer as an exercise in what can be done without using modern airliners.

Human beings are human, they get bored and lazy. Software project managers are stressed and driven by gantt charts. Software engineers are at the bottom of the heap. Software test engineers are at the end of the project (and usually that gets squeezed so hard the testing is compromised).

All this makes me think that increasingly complex software (and it's usually just enhancements of existing software, they rarely do rewrites, too expensive, so it's patching and extension all the way, baby) will lead to higher failure rates in devices which use software as control systems, and it doesn't get more critical than airliners.

Watch the skies, and wear rollerskates.

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