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Avoiding Airline Collisions with Julia

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Introduction

I was just watching an old episode of “Mayday: Air Crash Investigations“, on the crash of a Russian passenger jet with a DHL cargo plane over Switzerland. In this episode, both planes had onboard collision avoidance systems, but one plane listened to air traffic control rather than the collision avoidance system and went down rather than up, resulting in the collision. In reading about the programming language Julia recently, I had noticed several presentations on the development of the next generation of collision avoidance systems, in Julia. This piqued my interest, along with the fact that my wife is currently getting her pilot’s license, to have a slightly deeper look into this.

Modern airliners have employed an onboard Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) since the 1980s. TCAS is required on any passenger airplane that takes more than 19 passengers. These systems work by monitoring the transponders of nearby aircraft and determining when a collision is imminent. At this point it provides a warning to the plane’s pilot along with a course of action. The TCAS systems on the two aircraft communicate so one plane is ordered to go up and the other to descend.

Generally there are three layers to collision avoidance that operate on different timescales. At the coarsest level planes travelling in one direction are required to be at a different altitude than planes in the reversion direction. Usually one direction gets even altitudes like 30,000 feet and the reverse gets odd altitude like 31,000 feet. At a finer level, air traffic control is responsible for keeping the planes apart at medium distances. Then close up (minutes apart) it is TCAS’s job to avoid the collisions. This is partly due to the aftermath of the Russian/DHL crash and partly due to a realization that the latency in communications with air traffic control is too great when things get too close for comfort.

Interestingly it was the collision of two passenger plane’s over the Grand Canyon in 1956 that caused congress to create the FAA and started the development of the current TCAS system. It took thirty years to develop and deploy since it required computers to get much smaller and faster first.

Why Julia

The FAA has funded the development of the next generation of traffic avoidance which has been dubbed ACAS X. This started in 2008 and after quite a bit of study, it was decided to use Julia extensively in its development. Reading the reasons for why Julia was selected is rather scary when you consider what it highlights about the current TCAS system.

Problem 1 – Specifications

A big problem with TCAS was that the people that defined the system wrote the specification first as English like pseudo-code and then re-wrote that as a more programmy pseudo-code with variables and such. Then others would take this code and implement it in Mathlab to test the algorithms. Then the people who actually made the hardware would take this and re-implement it in C++ or Assembler. When people had a recent look at all this code, they found it to be a big mess, where the different specs and code bases had been maintained separately and didn’t match. There was no automation and very little validation. The first idea of fixing this code base was rejected as completely unreliable and impossible to add new features to.

They wanted to the new system to take advantage of modern technologies like satellite navigation systems, GPS, and on-board radar systems. This means the new system will work with other planes that don’t have collision avoidance or perhaps don’t even have a transponder. In fact they wanted the new system to be easily extensible as new sensor inputs are added. Below is a small example of the reams of pseudo code that makes up TCAS.

The hope with Julia is to unify these different code bases into one. The variable pseudo-code would actually be true Julia code and the English code would be incorporated into JavaDoc like comments in the code (actually using Latex). This would then eliminate the need to use Mathlab to test the pseudo-code. The consensus is that Julia code is easily as readable as the above pseudo-code but with the advantage of being runnable and testable.

The FAA doesn’t have the authority to mandate Avionics hardware companies run Julia on their ACAS X systems, but the hope is that the performance of Julia is good enough that they won’t bother reimplementing the system in C++ and that everything will be the same Julia code. Current estimates have the Julia code running 1.5 times the speed of C code and the thought is that with newer computer chips, this should be sufficient. The hope then is that the new system will not have the translation errors that dog TCAS.

Now that the specification is true computer code many other tools can be written or used to help check correctness, such as the tool below which generates a flowchart from the Julia code/specification.

Problem 2 – Testing/Validation

Certainly with TCAS implementing the system in Mathlab was hard. But then Mathlab is quite slow and that greatly restricts the number of test cases that can be effectively be automated. The TCAS system is based on a huge number of giant decision trees and billions of test cases. A number of test/validation frameworks have been developed to test the new ACAS X system including using theorem proving, probabilistic model checking, adaptive stress testing, simulations and weakest precondition code analysis.

Now if the Avionics hardware manufacturers run the actual Julia code, there will have only been one code base from specification to deployment and it will have all been very thoroughly developed, tested and validated.

Summary

The new ACAS X system is currently being flight tested and is projected to start being deployed in regular commercial aircraft starting in 2020. Looking at the work that has gone into this system, it looks like it will make flying much safer. Hopefully it also sets the stage for how future large safety-critical systems will be developed. Further it looks like the Julia programming language will play a central part in this.

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Written by smist08

October 7, 2018 at 10:28 pm