Monday, December 6, 2010

Security holes are everywhere even in secure virtualization systems, says Green Hills Software CEO

Posted by John McHale
If the Wikileaks scandal shows anything it proves that no system is secure as people may think it is -- especially software virtualization systems, said Dan O'Dowd, chief executive officer of Green Hills Software during the company’s Software Elite Users Technology Summit. "Virtualization adds nothing to security," he added.

O'Dowd pointed out that virtualization systems have less code, "but that just means they are less bad, not more secure. Running bug-ridden operating systems in virtual machines does not solve the security issue unless the virtualization system itself is secure."

He then made a point that I think resonates well beyond virtualization systems. "The security claims of popular virtualization systems are just marketing fluff to exploit the desperate need of all computer users for security," O'Dowd says. These systems have only been evaluated to the National Security Agency's (NSA's) Common Criteria EAL4+.

According to the Common criteria EAL4+ "makes them appropriate for protecting against 'inadvertent or casual attempts to breach system security,'" O’Dowd said. It's as if they have five doors to their house but only locked four, he added.

O'Dowd was working up to making the case for his company's EAL6+ secure virtualization software, but, I think he's also right on that this is not just a virtualization security phenomenon.

People are lazy when it comes to securing their computers. They all want their systems to be secure, but typically buy into the marketing fluff of certain technology because they like the convenience it provides. However, in the long run they are setting themselves up for security breaches.

It reminded me of something an export compliance officer at a major aerospace company once told me that he tells his employees who travel overseas. He says they need to assume that their emails are being read and their phone conversations are being listened to. It doesn't make you paranoid, it makes you vigilant, he said.

Speaking of vigilance, let's get back to the secure virtualization discussion.

During their work in this area O'Dowd's engineers found security vulnerabilities in standard device drivers in virtual machines. He said they attempted to use I/O memory management units (MMUs) to improve the security of virtual machines, but found that "it doesn't work.

"We weren't looking for vulnerabilities, we were just trying to make the device drivers work," O'Dowd said. "Modern I/O devices often contain huge software control programs consisting of hundreds of thousands lines of code and they have just as many security vulnerabilities as traditional operating systems."

He made the case that if users want to be vigilant with their virtualization systems they need to use an EAL6+ secure system like that offered by Green Hills. Makes sense but with that vigilance also comes cost.

Systems like Green Hills do not come cheap, so it becomes a matter of managing risk. Military and avionics systems cannot take that chance, but companies in less mission/life critical applications may be able to get away with it.

What's more expensive paying for the security ahead of time or not paying and hoping nothing happens? I guess it depends on whether or not you think you, your company, or your technology is actually a target.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Counter-MANPADS for commercial aircraft, where'd it go?

Posted by John McHale
Counter-MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) for commercial aircraft got a lot of press after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and I covered it quite a bit in our Homeland Security Solutions magazine back then, but I have not heard much about it in recent years till this week at the AUSA in Washington, DC.

Some of the technology explored for Counter-MANPADS was based on the Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures (ATIRCM) system from BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. I learned this while interviewing Burt Keirstead, director of integrated ASE (aircraft survivability equipment) at BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H., this week at AUSA about the ATIRCM.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Counter-MANPADS program was basically shelved due to reluctance from the airlines to spend money on the system unless subsidized by the government or if there is an attack from a shoulder-fired missile on a commercial airliner causing COutner-MANPADS to be mandated, Keirstead said.

Technologically "it was a success story," he said. BAE System's solution flew about 5,000 hours on a Boeing 767 back forth between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles and John F. Kennedy airport outside of New York, Keirstead continued. A couple of the flights included celebrities such as Brittany Spears and Liza Minelli, he added.

It was mounted upside down about 10 feet in front of the fuselage and painted white, Keirstead said. The system was optimized for use on commercial jets with a different cockpit display and a lightening protection unit, among other adjustments, he added.

The system works and could be added in on to the aircraft if it is ever mandated, Keirstead said.

Let's hope it's not necessary.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Neil Armstrong on being there

Posted by John McHale
I saw a great quote from Neil Armstrong on a board at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show here in Atlanta that I'd love to use for our Avionics Europe Event. "You can settle with e-mails and conference calls, but there's nothing like being there. Trust me on this."

I agree with him, even though I've never been to the Moon. Live events and in-person meetings cannot be completely replaced by webinars and e-mails. Pressing the flesh and looking people in the eye is how you build relationships, not by just trading e-mails.

Maybe we can hold Avionics 2030 in a lunar base and get Mr. Armstrong to speak. Just a thought.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Owning my own jet vs. flying commercial

Posted by John McHale
On the flight down to my first National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show in Atlanta this week, I contemplated what it would be like to own my jet -- a Gulfstream or Embraer Phenom jet. Then I remembered I'm a journalist -- in other words not rich. So I'm stuck flying commercial, which can be good and bad.

The good is the occasional low fare, the safety of air travel in the U.S., and meeting interesting people. The bad is the myriad of ways airlines look to charge you, their bizarre rules, lost luggage, etc.

My most recent headache involved a trip to Germany on Lufthansa. I called the night before my return trip to the U.S. to reserve my seat. I was given 52C. The next day I get to the airport and was told I was put on standby. Of course I asked HOW CAN THAT BE? I had a seat, who moved me to standby?

Apparently Lufthansa can bump your seat if they oversell their aircraft. Essentially it becomes the German Southwest overnight, by making it first come, first serve to the airport.

Seems pretty silly, doesn't it? It was especially insane to the guy behind me in the standby line. He bought his ticket and reserved his seat in January! Funny thing, the Lufthansa agent neglected to tell him and me that the seats were not guaranteed. All we got was "enjoy your flight."

Despite all that silliness, I did enjoy my flight. I still got an aisle seat and lucked out with an interesting seat mate -- a recent Boston College law school graduate returning from a trek through Europe.

She had some crazy stories from her vacation. The strangest had to be the one about moped-riding, wristwatch thieves in a less elegant part of Naples, Italy. Apparently they are quite common and dangerous, ripping women's Rolexes right off their wrist as they speed by.

Yes, I've gotten off topic a bit, but the moped thieves story really stuck with me.

Back to business jets. I still want one. I put my business card in a bowl at a Boeing press conference, hoping to win one -- no dice. It was a model airplane, but I have to start somewhere.

Maybe I'll have better luck on the show floor tomorrow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ada is not nearly as dead a language as Latin

Posted by John McHale
The Ada programming language has been said to be an obsolete language for years. However, it is still used throughout the defense and avionics communities and still taught in the schools, although it is not as popular a course selection as C or C++.

Ada is mostly a higher-course level subject at universities, Greg Gicca, director of safety and security at AdaCore in New York, told me during the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston last week. It would be nice if it could be offered as a 101 course to students because it would give them a better understanding of software fundamentals, object-oriented programming, etc., than say C or C++, he adds.

Adacore works with many colleges and universities across the country, educating new students in Ada code, Gicca says. The military and avionics world keeps Ada alive and provides a steady revenue stream for companies like AdaCore, he adds.

It is the professors who are driving the ada course load, but there is plenty of interest from students as well, Gicca says.

DDC-I, a designer of Ada products in Phoenix, also provides education services to universities such as Georgia Tech, says Greg Rose, vice president of marketing at DDC-I.

The Ada language was created for the U.S. Department of Defense about 30 years ago to better handle safety-critical programming in mission-critical military systems and since then has also become a staple of commercial avionics software programs.

According to Wikipedia it was named after, Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace also known as Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the Poet Lord Byron. She is considered by some to be the world's first computer programmer after writing what is considered to be the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine -- for her work on an early mechanical general-purpose computer, designed by Charles Babbage, according to her Wikipedia entry.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Archie Bunker, counter-terror expert

Posted by John McHale
On a JetBlue flight to Phoenix this week, I took a break from a story I was writing on software defined radio and the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) and caught a couple episodes of "All in the Family" playing on JetBlue's in-flight entertainment system.

You only see shows like that on cable or premium channels like HBO, the language and Archie's very un-PC rants scare networks away. Exemplified in the first episode I watched on the flight where Archie was arguing with his son-in-law Mike (Meathead), about gun control. They had just seen a local TV station manager give a speech on gun control and Archie demanded equal time.

Archie's premise was that if more people had guns there would be less crime. Then he delivered this bit of counter-terrorism advice: "you could end sky-jacking tomorrow by arming all the passengers. The airline would hand out guns at the beginning of the flight, then collect them all when they land."

Just as he said this the flight attendant was coming by with headphones... weird.

Some 88-year-old woman had a break-in at her house, and Archie argued it wouldn't have happened if she had a gun.

Mike: "How would 88-year old walk around carrying a gun?!"

Archie: "I don't know, maybe put in her stocking next to her varicose vein!"

Some more lines: Archie's daughter, Gloria, shouts out statistics about how many people are killed by guns. Archie: "Would it make you feel any better if they were pushed outta windows, little girl?"

Mike mentions Supreme Court rulings in favor of gun control. Archie responds with "the Supreme Court ain't got nothin to do with the law!"

Fun stuff, although I left out the more ethnic-oriented comments from Archie -- thought it best to stay away from those. However, there was some funny dialogue from the other episode on the flight, which had Archie and his wife Edith visiting cousin Maude (Bea Arthur). Maybe this was the episode that launched that show -- "Maude."

Some exchanges:
Maude: "I happen to be a Hubert Humphrey Democrat."
Maude's daughter Carol: "What does that mean?"
Maude's husband Walter: "It means she's not against anything."

One more!

Walter to Carol: "Why are you wearing white for your wedding?"
Maude chimes in: "Because white has always been a symbol of innocence and purity in marriages."”
Walter: "Married before ... multiple affairs ... so how did she manage that tricky u-turn back to innocence and purity?"

Those shows made the flight ... lotta laughs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Executive layoffs at Boeing, Lockheed Martin signal tough times ahead

Posted by John McHale
Boeing and Lockheed Martin leaders call it re-aligning, focusing on core competencies, better positioning for the future, empowering the younger generation, yadda, yadda, yadda... but what they really mean is that the Obama Administration's next Department of Defense budget is likely to be a lot smaller than in years past and the big primes want to hoard their cash now by eliminating high-level executive salaries -- about 600 in the case of Lockheed Martin.

I'd heard rumblings in my travels this summer from defense electronics suppliers that there could be trouble in the defense market. These recent announcements from behemoths -- Lockheed Martin and Boeing -- are probably only the beginning. It's not that hardware and software solutions won't be needed it's just that there will be fewer opportunities.

The growth areas will continue to be unmanned systems and electro-optics for unmanned and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. Electro-optical companies should still see steady growth. A sign of this might be the recent acquisition of electro-optical systems and multispectral sensors specialist OASYS Technology LLC in Manchester, N.H., by BAE Systems.

As one system integrator told me at the AUVSI unmanned systems show this summer in Denver "we know there will be unmanned platforms getting funding, but guessing the right one will be the trick."

Do not fear Lockheed Martin and Boeing are not in trouble and they are still cash cows, but they are letting go of some experienced good people and that is unfortunate to say the least.

This reminds me of something someone once told me when there were layoffs at a publishing company I'm somewhat familiar with. A long-time manager was let go not due to cause or because his property was performing poorly, but rather to maintain the property as a cash cow -- that at the end of the day it's all about maintaining cash cowness.

I hope that someday I find my own cash cowness...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is your embedded system supplier "board agnostic?"

Posted by John McHale
I know what you’re thinking -- please not another marketing buzz term. I hope "board agnosticism" or "board agnostic" doesn't fall into that category, because I fear I may have accidentally coined it this week at the AUVSI show in Denver while talking to embedded systems designers.

It came up during conversation with Michael Humphrey of APLabs, now a part of Kontron about how they are still going to use Kontron's competitors' single-board computers in the rugged electronic systems and chassis APLabs designed, and not become a Kontron-component only shop.

So I went around the corner and asked the folks at Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems if they were board agnostic too? Curtis Reichenfeld, their chief technical officer, replied "yes, we are board agnostic, absolutely, we give the customer what they want. I love that term by the way!"

I thought oh hell, I just gave the embedded community another marketing mumbo jumbo phrase, like ecosystem, or thought leader. I'm going to see board agnostic in a flurry of press releases the rest of the year, and know I only have myself to blame.

Could be worse, a company could say that their board product is "best of breed"... Ugh. It drives me nuts when I see an electronic chip or software tool labeled as best of breed like it's an entry in the Westminster Kennel Show.

I got one other linguistic gripe before I end this -- whiteboarding. A colleague recently told me we need to back to the office and whiteboard our goals.

Whiteboard is NOT a verb.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I wanna go to UAV school

Posted by John McHale
Journalism school was fun, but how cool would it be to enroll in a college and declare your major as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations? Well you can! L-3 Link Simulation & Training and the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, N.D., are jointly creating an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) Training Center located on UND's campus and Grand Forks Air Force Base, beginning operations in March 2011.

It will be a non-military educational that provides initial qualification and continuation training for operators of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. All you have to be is a U.S. citizen, according to L-3 Link officials.

It makes sense, as most students coming out of school today find operating electronics, computers, video games, the Wii entertainment system, etc., to be second nature.

It reminds me of -- now I'm dating myself -- of a movie called "The Last Starfighter" from the early 1980s about an alien race that rigs a video game on Earth so that the kid who gets the record qualifies to fly their starships, and they kidnap him to help them win a galactic war.

I don't think it would crazy for the UND or the Air Force to put a video game out there involving UAV operation, and rewarding the highest scorer with a scholarship to the UAS Training Center.

Not as far-fetched as that campy 80s movie...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

AUVSI traffic in Denver steady, but it lacks DC excitement

Posted by John McHale
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI show) in Denver this week had steady traffic, and exhibitors were pleased with the leads they had, but the majority I spoke to said there was more of a buzz in Washington at last year's event.

Organizers of the event said that traffic was up over last year with more than 6,200 as of Thursday afternoon. Last year they said the event in Washington attracted close to 5,500 attendees. It should be noted that the numbers are for total attendance -- including exhibitors and there were 110 more exhibits this year.

Attendees definitely see unmanned systems as a major target for Department of Defense funding over the next few years, but right now there is uncertainty as to which systems will get funding. They put that down to the uncertainty of what the Obama administration will cut.

There were more embedded systems suppliers exhibiting at this show than in years past such as Bittware and Extreme Engineering. Seems like a no-brainer to me as unmanned systems requirements focus on small size, low weight and low power -- right up the alley of the embedded military systems designers. If they're not here, they should be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Manned or unmanned aircraft ... is there a choice?

Posted by John McHale
During diner with a buddy of mine last week -- Peter L. -- I mentioned that I would be at the AUVSI show this week in Denver. Peter is a big military technology buff and likes my job even more than I do, but I was surprised to hear him say we should stop making new fighter jets and focus solely on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- not an opinion I often hear from those outside the military industry, as fighter jets and fighter pilots are a bit more glamorous than spy drones.

His main argument was fiscal -- UAVs cost less to make and can go places human-piloted planes cannot. I'd add to his list that UAV flight training costs less than manned flight training. Many folks are making the same argument and taking it a step further asking if it is even necessary to have trained fighter pilots flying UAVs.

I've always been in favor of manned missions over robotic missions when it comes to space exploration, but when it comes to the battlefield -- the more unmanned systems the better because quite simply they save lives from the unmanned ground systems that recon urban hot zones to the armed Predator UAV that take out enemy forces in Afghanistan.

However I don't think we should do away with the manned fighter aircraft, they are as essential as the UAVs to success on the battlefield. One of the big themes I'm hearing this week is the push toward manned and unmanned teaming on the battlefield.

It is already happening in some circles such as the VUIT-2 system on Apache helicopters, which enables Apache pilots to access UAV-generated intelligence. UAVs can enter areas, which might be too risky for the fighter pilot to make precision strikes or to provide the necessary reconnaissance before manned aircraft can enter the area.

David, Vos, of Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said during a briefing this week that manned/unmanned teaming should not just be thought of as a military scenario, that it can happen in civilian space too.

Vos also says that at some point planes will be pilot optional -- in other words if the pilot doesn't feel like flying he doesn't have to, the autonomous controls will handle everything -- including emergencies. "Before I'm in the ground I want to be able to get in the cockpit flying to see my mother-in-law, and decide that I don't feel like piloting, so I will read the paper instead and enjoy a cup of coffee."

My friend Peter is right on one point -- UAVs are the future of military airpower and will be essential to every mission -- however they will not replace manned aircraft, but rather make them even more capable, effective, and more deadly to enemy forces.

UAV ground control systems follow-up

Posted by John McHale
Last month I wrote a feature for our print magazine on ground control stations (GCS) for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the U.S. Defense Department's plans for a common GCS that can work with any UAV platform. This week at the AUVSI show in Denver, I had a little chat with George Romanski, president of Verocel, about the efforts he and others are making to build the software architecture for the future GCS.

Romanski said it will use a secure multiple independent levels of security (MILS) software architecture with Linux running on top so to speak. With MILS the secure data will be protected within the MILS architecture.

The architecture will also be certified to the necessary Federal Aviation Administration standards such as DO-178B. The system should be deployed between 2013 and 2015.

I will be doing a more in-depth look at the architecture in the coming months.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Despite good news out of Farnborough, avionics suppliers still expect slow recovery

Posted by John McHale

I spent the past week all over the west coast visiting supporters of our avionics shows -- Avionics USA and Avionics Europe -- in California. Everyone was aware about the good news coming from the Farnborough International Airshow last week regarding commercial aircraft sales, but they are remaining cautious about any potential market recovery.

I spent the past week all over the west coast visiting supporters of our avionics shows -- Avionics USA and Avionics Europe -- in California. Everyone was aware about the good news coming from the Farnborough International Airshow this month regarding commercial aircraft sales, but they are remaining cautious about any potential market recovery.

At Farnborough the major airplane manufacturers announced airplane orders in the hundreds, signaling an upswing in the market, however it will be a while till this good news trickles down to the avionics level.

The commercial aviation market ramped down awfully fast, but it will not ramp up as quickly, cautioned Ben Daniel, business manager for avionics at GE Intelligent Platforms in Goleta, Calif. It will be a slow recovery but people will still be buying airplanes and designing avionics systems, he added.

Air Electro president Steve Strull in Chatsworth, Calif., told me he is excited about the airplane orders and that his aviation connector business has been steady, weathering the economic times well -- as Air Electro's connectors were designed into the aircraft manufacturing systems as well the finished aircraft systems.

Retrofits for aircraft are also a growth market, Strull added.

Designers of military avionics systems, say it's a matter of waiting and seeing where the Obama administration is going to spend dollars and if they are going to spend dollars. "We're seeing lots of activity in terms of proposals, but no one is sure how much Obama is going to cut out of the defense budget to pay for his social programs," said Doug Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Aitech Chatsworth, Calif.

When the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and the F-22 Raptor cancellations were announced many in the defense industry thought funding would go toward upgrading older aircraft platforms, but Patterson said that such retrofits may also be curtailed as well depending on what the Obama administration will do.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Aviation safety story questioning Boeing 787 Dreamliner crashworthiness takes unfair jabs at Boeing, FAA

Posted by John Keller

4 July 2010. I'm taking a skeptical look at an aviation safety investigative report appearing in today's editions of the Chicago Tribune that call into question the survivability of the future Boeing 787 Dreamliner in a crash. Here's the problem: the headline of the story reads "Composite material used in Boeing 787 raises safety questions," yet the text of the story -- far down in the story -- points out that these questions have largely been answered.

It doesn't look to me that this story is being fair to Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or to the engineers that initially uncovered potential weaknesses in the fuselage of the 787 in crash scenarios, and then went on to deal with these issues after rigorous testing. The fuselage of the 787 Dreamliner is made of lightweight, yet tough, composite materials, while most commercial jetliners are made from lightweight metals.

Based on information in the story, it looks like Boeing and the FAA have done a pretty good job of designing the Boeing 787 to be a safe commercial aircraft. While defendable, the story's headline strongly and unfairly suggests otherwise. For good or ill, no one is going to know exactly how safe the aircraft will be until -- God forbid -- one experiences a serious runway crash.

This story goes on for 26 paragraphs -- extensively citing five-year-old data -- before first mentioning that concerns about the 787's composite structure in a crash have been addressed with structural modifications that have satisfied experts at the FAA.

After 26 paragraphs, the story does give detailed treatment of how the 787 has been structurally improved since 2005, yet leaves readers with nagging doubts by quoting a "composite-materials expert" who hasn't worked for Boeing for 10 years, and left the company at least five years before Boeing experts started making modifications to improve the aircraft's crashworthiness.

I think I can see why the Tribune held this story for a slow holiday Sunday.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Flying car fantasy looks like it could become reality

Posted by John Keller

When I was a kid it was the fantasy of everyone I knew to find a way to fly, be it with a rocket belt we saw on TV, or better yet, to have a flying car that could take off, as well as roll along the highways.

Now it seems that fantasy could be coming true.

Terrafugia of Woburn, Mass., is ready to market the Transition flying car, after receiving "light sport" aircraft classification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The Terrafugia Transition, a two-seat combination light aircraft and street-legal automobile, can travel at normal highway speeds on pavement, and at 115 miles per hour when flying. It can take off from airports or long flat stretches after folding down its wings and engaging its backward-facing propeller.

At a cost of about $200,000, anyone willing to put in at least 20 hours flying time to quality can buy one, fly it from place to place, and store it in an ordinary garage.

I can't help thinking, though, that this fantasy-come-true is most likely a combination of poor car and even worse airplane. Just goes to show that you ought to be careful what you wish for.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft: coming to an airport near you

Posted by John Keller

Commercial airliners may be on the verge of a transformation every bit as significant as the switch from propeller to jet power, and once again likely will demonstrate the ability of air passengers to adapt quickly to new technologies that many say they will never accept.

What I'm talking about is the likely future of unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before -- nobody will fly on a plane without a human pilot. We've all heard the joke about the automated passenger aircraft on which nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong.

Yet while it's true that passengers want to get to their destinations safely and with peace of mind, what the unpiloted passenger aircraft skeptics underestimate is how much passengers want to get to their destinations. Period. Get 'em where they want to go, when they want to get there, and they'll adapt.

Case in point: the Boeing 707 jetliner. The 707, developed in the 1950s, was one of the first commercially successful passenger jets, and dominated commercial aviation during the 1960s and into the '70s. When its design first went onto the drawing boards, nay-sayers said passengers would never board an aircraft that didn't have propellers.

Those in the aviation industry who believed this put their money behind other passenger aircraft designs of the day, such as the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. Quick show of hands: how many remember the 707, and how many remember the Constellation? I thought so. Some of the first 707 passengers may have been a little nervous about seeing no propellers on the wings, but evidently that didn't last long.

We'll see the same thing when we see the first unpiloted passenger jets, and that could be sooner than you think. New Scientist has a story out online this week entitled Drone alone: how airliners may lose their pilots. It points out research projects on both sides of the Atlantic to find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to share civil airspace with passenger jets.

It's only a matter of time, the article points out, before researchers can find a way for UAVs to share airspace with passenger jets, which will lead to unpiloted cargo aircraft, and finally to unpiloted passenger aircraft. Would you as a passenger fly in a plane without a pilot?

Let me tell you, if this approach led to fewer delays at the airport, I'd be on unpiloted planes in a heartbeat. I'm betting you would, too.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's backup plan if satellites go down on NextGen air traffic management system?

Posted by John Keller

The NextGen air traffic management system represents a revolutionary advancement in air traffic control, as the future system will use satellite navigation and guidance to enable commercial jetliners to fly not only straight lines to their destinations, but also to control their trajectories and flight profiles based on the performance of each aircraft to save time, fuel, and other operating costs.

But what happens if the satellites go down? This isn't out of the realm of possibility. A nuclear weapon detonated in low-Earth orbit could destroy or disable upwards of 80 percent of the navigation satellites on which not only NextGen air traffic management, but also any kind of Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation depends.

It worries me that countries we might consider to be rogue nations -- I'm thinking of Iran and North Korea here -- either have or are close to developing nuclear weapons and the means to boost these into Earth orbit and explode them there, taking out most of the communications, navigation, and home entertainment satellites residing there. Let's face it, it's only a matter of time before terrorist organizations get their hands on nukes capable of doing this job.

So assuming that we will in a short time have a primarily satellite-based air traffic control system, what do we do if the worst happens?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington has considered this possibility and has a backup plan in place, says Ronald Stroup, chief systems engineer at the FAA, who made his comments today at the Avionics USA conference and trade show in San Diego.

Stroup told conference attendees that the FAA has plans to continue maintaining its network of ground-based radar stations -- perhaps not all of them, but enough to do the job. In addition, FAA experts have plans to extend the ranges of ground-based radar systems to continue with air traffic control if satellite-based systems malfunction.

The FAA also plans to maintain its distance measuring equipment (DME) navigation systems so commercial aircraft can continue navigating from place to place using ground-based radio beacons. It might not be as efficient as the NextGen system, but at least we'll still have a functioning air traffic management system.

Finally, Stroup says the FAA plans to maintain radio-based voice communications to relay orders, directives, and crucial flight data to commercial aircraft in the event of a disaster that renders satellite-based systems inoperable.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NextGen in the mid-term

Posted by John McHale

While planning for our avionics conferences this year, the thing our advisory board kept hammering home to me was that avionics engineers don't want to hear about what's happening ten or 15 years down the road, they want to know what will help their businesses today. Hence, the theme for this year's Avionics USA conference -- NextGen in the mid-term.

The big change coming in commercial aviation is the transition toward NextGen, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Next Generation Air Transportation System and in Europe Eurocontrol's Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR). Both are still nearly a decade away from full deployment, but avionics designers are already beginning to implement new standards and technology now, in the mid-term to be ready for the transition.

NextGen will bring air traffic management (ATM) from a ground-based radar system to a satellite-based system. One of our advisory board members told me it will "bring the ATM decision making from the ground to the pilot" through the software and electronics he will have in the cockpit. Enabling this is Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which should cut down on midair collisions and weather-related accidents. ADS-B systems are already being implemented in aircraft today.

NextGen avionics will be implemented in electronic flight bags, avionics displays, embedded computers, GPS and other navigation devices, and most importantly software applications such as real-time weather monitoring that enable pilots to take over their own ATM decision-making. It will also improve trajectory performance, reduce fuel emissions, and lower fuel costs through performance-based operations, specifically trajectory-based operations and required navigation performance (RNP) techniques and monitoring technology.

Challenges facing these designers right now include costly software and hardware safety certification of NextGen systems and integrating them into old aircraft. Harmonizing with the military is also very important as many military aircraft – manned and unmanned -- fly in civilian airspace. This is especially challenging in Europe as there are many different countries, each with military branches that do not currently work well together.

All these issues are difficult on their own with an economy that tanked and has many avionics suppliers thinking more about how to survive in the mid-term rather than how to integrate NextGen in the mid-term.

This is why I'm most excited about a panel discussion we're having at the event next month on June 3 titled "How to Add New Avionics to Airplanes in Downturn Economy." The panelists are Rudy Bracho, senior manager of business development at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Capt. Brian Will, director airspace modernization and advanced technologies at American Airlines, Chad Cundiff, vice president of crew interface products at Honeywell Aerospace, and Joel Otto, senior director, commercial systems marketing at Rockwell Collins.

I'm the moderator, so if you have any questions you think I should ask these guys, respond here, send them to me at, or come on down to San Diego and check out the panel. To register click here.

Shoot me some good ones to get the panelists to open up!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aer Lingus vs. US Airways

Posted by John McHale

My last two trips have been on Aer Lingus -- back and forth to Amsterdam for our Avionics Europe Conference -- and US Airways, which I flew to Phoenix this week for the Avionics Maintenance Conference.

My last two trips have been on Aer Lingus -- back and forth to Amsterdam for our Avionics Europe Conference -- and US Airways, which I flew to Phoenix this week for the Avionics Maintenance Conference (AMC).

Granted, one was international and therefore offered some more amenities such as an in-flight entertainment (IFE) system with tons of movies, games, and albums from Frank Sinatra to Snow Patrol. However, even if you take away the IFE I'm still voting for the folks at Aer Lingus.

Each time I've flown the Irish airline they have been as friendly as Disney World employees. Twice I've had issues making my connection in Dublin and each time they've done everything they could to get me to my next flight -- making one and missing another. After the missed connection to Boston they put me up for a night in Dublin and picked up the tab.

It's not that my US Airways experience was negative, but nothing made it stand out -- no IFE system and no remarkable service. However, they did get me there safely and on time, which I'm always grateful for .

The keynote at AMC this week -- an executive with US Airways -- said that the airline is installing new IFE systems this year and adding other enhancements to improve passenger comfort.

Good news, but for this Irish Catholic it's hard to top an airline that names all its planes after Irish Saints. I believe I flew home on Saint Kealin, at least that's what the Franciscan Brother sitting next to me told me.

Brother Martin, who spent the last three years helping the poor and drug addicts in Limerick, Ireland, says he loves Aer Lingus simply for that reason.

It seems to make him feel his trip is bit more blessed flying on canonized wings... :)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Conformity with military airborne systems crucial for SESAR integration

Posted by John McHale

The first presentation this morning at our Avionics Europe conference in Amsterdam covered how the military needs to be more involved in the standardization process for next-generation air traffic management technology in Europe -- the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).

The first presentation this morning at our Avionics Europe conference in Amsterdam covered how the military needs to be more involved in the standardization process for next-generation air traffic management technology in Europe -- the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).

The speaker -- Dominique Colin, standardization and certification expert at Eurocontrol in Brussels, Belgium -- said if the different European militaries are not involved now and do not embrace these standards then "we will have to wait until 2050 before there is another chance."

Europe's situation is much more complicated than that of the U.S. because there are so many different countries with different military standards, Colin said. Complicating things even more is that the different services in these countries sometimes do not cooperate with each other, he added.

Colin said it is a bit of a messy situation but it can be resolved. He suggested that the military should move toward performance-base operations -- meeting ATM standards through performance benchmarks rather than equipage.

Colin also said that the different standards bodies on the civil side need to develop a better understanding of military processes and standards.

Most importantly both sides need to embrace the standards at the beginning of each program and not halfway through, Colin said. He noted the Airbus A400M tanker aircraft program has from the beginning embraced not only military standards but civil safety and ATM standards as well.

I spoke with one of our conference advisory board members -- Don Ward of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- and he confirmed that the U.S. military is easier to work with because it is only one defense department and that the different services within the DOD communicate much better than in years past.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Market outlook positive among Avionics Europe attendees

Posted by John McHale

The mood among attendees and exhibitors at our Avionics Europe conference this week is one of optimism – regarding the market outlook and the developments in next-generation avionics technology.

The mood among attendees and exhibitors at our Avionics Europe conference in Amsterdam this week this week is one of optimism – regarding the market outlook and the developments in next-generation avionics technology.

Many who deal with the commercial market have felt the sting of the current global recession, but feel the market is starting to show signs of coming back – such as the successful flight tests of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and new orders for other aircraft from Boeing and Airbus.

Officials at Green Hills Software in Santa Barbara, Calif., say the European market has been quite strong for safety-critical software applications. Echoing their comment was Barbara Schmitz, chief marketing officer of MEN Mikro Elektronik in Nuremburg, Germany, a recent entrant to the avionics market.

MEN Mikro officials see the avionics market especially in Europe as their next growth opportunity, Schmitz says.

The keynote address by John Law, surveillance programs manager at Eurocontrol in Brussels, Belgium, gave an update on next-generation navigation technology and a roadmap of when it will be integrated. Despite the economic woes, - Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B), Area Multilateration, and Mode-S as already beginning with most technology retrofits completed by 2017.

The military avionics market continues to be steady especially in the U.S. CMC Electronics – an exhibitor at Avionics Europe – say the see increased demand for their military avionics displays in 2010.

Theresa Hartley, an analyst at Forecast International in Washington says that while funding for new military platforms is decreasing, funding for retrofits is increasing, which is good news for military avionics suppliers.

Friday, January 1, 2010

E-networking revolution highlighted 2009

Posted by John McHale

At Avionics Intelligence and Military & Aerospace Electronics in 2009 we dived right into social networking or as we like to call it e-networking. We have a fan page on Facebook, a group on Linkedin called the PennWell Aerospace and Defense Media Group, and gather our news content on Twitter Avionics Intelligence under #avintel and for Military & Aerospace Electronics at #milaero.
At Avionics Intelligence and Military & Aerospace Electronics in 2009 we dived right into social networking or as we like to call it e-networking. We have a fan page on Facebook, a group on Linkedin called the PennWell Aerospace and Defense Media Group, and gather our news content on Twitter for Avionics Intelligence under #avintel and for Military & Aerospace Electronics at #milaero.

It's been a fun and successful way to push out our online news stories to new readers and start discussions. We've found the most interactive outlet to be on Linkedin, which started out as a professional networking site whereas Facebook was focused on more social or personal networking.

Although, yesterday I read a story in the Wall Street Journal that basically stated Linkedin needs to get more creative to keep-up with Facebook. According to the piece Facebook kicks Linkedin's rear in total members. However some analysts in the story say that lopsided memebrship numbers are misleading as Linkedin is strictly a professional networking service whereas Facebook is geared more toward professional and social communication.

I have also found that many people I talk to in the defense and aerospace industry say that their employers do not let them use Facebook or Twitter, but are more flexible when it comes to Linkedin because of its professional nature.

Twitter is its own animal. I've done quite a bit of tweeting while at trade shows. It provides immediate coverage -- albeit in 140 characters or less. I typically will tweet as I'm leaving a booth or sitting in a press conference or luncheon. Twitter allows me to not only push links to articles on our websites but get out little tidbits of info that would not typically make it into the print magazine or on a web story.

Also, much like with our blogs, Twitter allows us to take a different, sometimes lighter spin on current events than traditional news coverage.

What really seems to impress our audience about Twitter is its instantaneous nature.

For example at the MILCOM show this fall in Boston, I attended the first live demonstration of an OpenVPX system run by engineers at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va., and Hybricon in Ayer, Mass. I tweeted about the demo on my Blackberry while watching it. They were excited because they were videotaping the moment and placing it on youtube -- -- but got quite a kick out of the fact that I was immediately online with their news.

One person in attendance commented that the age of instant reporting is here.

E-networking media has definitely changed the way we do things at Military & Aerospace Electronics. I remember when all we used to have was a magazine. Now we still have the magazine, two websites, four conferences, webcasts, three e-newsletters, dedicated pages on Linkedin,Facebook, and on Twitter at #avintel and #milaero.

So be sure to check us out wherever you find yourself on the web in 2010.

Happy New Year!