Boeing’s Recent Problems

The kinds of issues that Boeing is encountering with implementation of new technologies are, in a sense, universal.  Most consumer technology companies have to deal with this kind of stuff when designing new products.  What is different here is that, because of the nature of Boeing’s business, these issues can lead to life-and-death situations, especially when mistakes are made.

Software is playing a bigger role in the implementation of the logic for decision making in the working of products everywhere.  In the case of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 (and most likely the other MAX variants), a particular aspect of the software implementation became a key element in establishing the “stability” of the product, i.e., the aircraft, during a certain mode of operation.  The software implementation turned out to be flawed in its implementation.  Rather than depend on human beings to control the aircraft during a particularly unstable period of flight of the aircraft, the design had the software take over the flying of the plane during that period of time.   The logic of the overall system design was shown to be faulty in one of the planes that crashed (and the authorities will probably conclude that something similar led to the second crash).  In their rush to get the product out, Boeing failed to account adequately for all the possible ways in which things could go wrong, especially when control is wrested away from the human beings flying the plane.

How did Boeing end up with this kind of a design?  The basic design of the 737 is quite old (from the 1960s) and not the best suited for upgrading to the latest technologies, including newer engines that are more efficient.  Boeing was trying to match the performance of their newest products to the latest version of the newer (from the 1980s) Airbus A320 line of aircraft without having to design a new aircraft from the ground up, a process that would have supposedly cost more money and time.   The solution approach that Boeing ended up with turned out to be something that was not ideal – an aircraft that was known to be unstable under certain conditions. The solution that they came up with to handle the instability was to use software to control the system so that it could at least be “meta-stable”. (Some military aircraft are designed this way.) The idea was to implement this “feature” without modifying how pilots who were used to flying the 737s would fly this new plane.  Basically, they wanted to introduce the product in a way that the unstable nature of the design was not obvious to the pilots, so that their experience of flying a new plane would match that of flying an existing design.  Instead of talking about the differences in the design and familiarizing pilots with how they should handle these differences, they deliberately tried to make things appear to be simpler than they actually were by addressing the problem with software control.  What the heck!  Boeing trusted the software more than instincts of the pilots?!

I am not a software engineer, but the small number of people who have been following my blogs know by now that I like to rail against the scourge of bad software.  I feel I have a right to do so based on my experiences with such software. But the problem these days seems to go beyond that of “bad software” – it also seems to lie  in the way the software logic is integrated into the whole system. And at the same time, whole systems are becoming more and more dependent on this kind of software.  Our two hybrid cars, the Honda Civic from 2008 and the Prius from 2015,  are two completely different beasts when it comes to integrating the operations of the electric motor, the gasoline engine, and the battery, into one coherent system to supply torque to the wheels.  This whole process is dependent on decisions made using logic implemented in software.   The logic, and the practical results from the implementations, are completely different for the two cars.  Who knows how they came up with the logic, and how many software bugs there are in the control systems!  When I complained about the Honda when I had problems, they were quite reluctant to give me any technical information.  The good thing is that nothing seems to have been compromised when it comes to safety.

I used to work in an industry where the pressures of succeeding quickly with the introduction of new products was a primary driver in the decision making process.  (This is probably a truism for most industries.)  Thank goodness we were manufacturing products that did not deal with life-and-death issues. Failure in our systems could not, for the most part, kill you.  Safety of the product was ensured by following regulations in this regard.  But when these kinds of market forces impact a multi-billion dollar aircraft industry, a situation where the lives of millions of regular folks who are flying is involved, you have the potential for very significant problems.  If you try to cut corners hoping that there is nothing fatal that lies out of sight, you are asking for trouble.   The regulators are supposed to be the final arbitrator for safety issues, but what can they really understand about complicated systems like the ones we are building today.  Ultimately, the onus lies on the one building the product, and this is true for any kind of product.

Boeing will survive their current problems, but their reputation is tarnished, at least for the short term.  They really came out of this looking small and insincere, trying to hide behind the FAA.   They could have gained more trust from the public by being proactive, and even responding more forcefully after the first crash.

Truth of the matter is that situations like these have happened in the past for both of the big aircraft manufacturers that remain today – Airbus and Boeing.  When Airbus first introduced fly-by-wire technologies, there was even a crash at an airshow.

It is true that fatal flaws in aircraft are not limited to those of the software kind.   Planes have been crashing due to hardware failures since man began to fly.   It is only that  fatal flaws of the software kind are completely predictable.  They should be easier to find and test for from the design and implementation perspective.  The software should be able to respond to all the known hardware issues (which are unfortunately unavoidable) in some way, and the software should not be buggy.  And you cannot have the software introducing new failure modes, especially when safety is involved.  That should be unacceptable.

In general, flying commercial aircraft is probably much safer today than it has ever been.  The problem (as I see it) seems to be that companies are willing to play with people’s lives in their approach for introducing new technology and making money, and this is preventing the system from being as safe as it really can be when new products are introduced.  Some companies seem to be too willing to take a risk of losing human lives in the process of learning more about their new products.  And then they are slow to take responsibility.  There has to be some kind of social liability associated with this approach.

Boeing and Airbus, the new ‘super duopoly’ – WP

The business of manufacturing and selling commercial aircraft is a good illustration of how cutthroat the world of commerce can be, where winners and losers are sometimes determined not necessarily by how innovative you are, or how good a product you have produced, but by how you are able to manipulate the system.  The big guys do have an advantage in this regard.  I follow this business somewhat closely because of my love for aeroplanes in general  (I have destroyed many a balsa wood glider in my childhood), something that has stayed with me for a very long time.

https://wapo.st/2qWj8Dc

Weekly Photo Challenge: (Extra)ordinary Planet Earth

Very often something that you experience for the first time can seem extraordinary to you, but repeated exposure with time can make it feel more “ordinary”.  The novelty can wear off.

In this context, the series of pictures that I am going to present may tend to be less noteworthy to a certain subset of population that is used to flying on commercial aircraft across the United States on a regular basis. But I also suspect that not all of this subsection of the population  actually even sees what I see.  They probably would not handle the flying experience the way I used to.  Most folks are who on these trips regularly are doing it for business purposes, and the flying part of the experience is used for pursuits other than taking pictures out of the window of the aircraft.  The more energetic folks are usually catching up on work, most often on their electronic devices, while most others are trying to simply relax, either reading, or watching a movie or taking a nap.  An alcoholic beverage or two can also sometimes help the time pass by.

But I took a different approach.   I would attempt to get on flights that were at the right time of the day for taking pictures from the air, and if possible even try to find a window seat on the side of the aircraft that provided the best views at that time of day.  My face would be stuck to the window pane. (The Airbus 320 family of aircraft have much more comfortable windows than the Boeing 737s in this regard.) I would take pictures of whatever I could see that seemed remarkable (extraordinary?) to me both in the sky and on the ground.  I flew quite a lot for many years, but none of this stuff ever became ordinary to me.

Looking back in time, I was quite fortunate to have found something to do that was exciting and extraordinary to me, something that made the routine and the drudgery of unending business trips for the purposes of making a living and putting bread on the table more tolerable.

Most of the flights I used to take happened to pass over the southwest of the United States, a particularly remote and rugged area of the country with a low population density.  Here are few shots that from those days.

IMG_2329The black spot in the picture is from water on the ground.  I wonder if people live in this area. And here is a picture taken with the sun low in the sky.

IMG_4099It seemed to me that I was flying over a different planet.  And then there was this shot that reminded me of fractals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe structure seen in the following picture reminds you of the complexity of the processes that have shaped the earth.  My guess is that the material of the structure is able to withstand erosion much better than the material around it.

IMG_2557Sometimes you see the impact of the combination of nature and man on the ground in a different way, as on this wintry day when I was flying cross-country.

IMG_2526Finally, here is a very simple phenomena that I saw from the window of my aircraft.

IMG_2341I have never seen a circular rainbow anywhere else.  Here is an explanation for this phenomenon.  Apparently this is not an uncommon thing for people who fly frequently to see.  It goes to show that something that is extraordinary to one person may be ordinary for somebody else.

Here are some other pictures I have taken while flying.

Here is a link to this week’s photo challenge.

Is There a Concept of Having Too Much Technology

Some inventors from Airbus were recently granted the following patent.

If you follow the link you will see that the patent is essentially for the design of a passenger aircraft that can travel at speeds of up to Mach 4.5 using certain advanced technologies.  The invention contemplates an aircraft with three different kinds of engines for three different stages of flight.  The first engine type would be used for liftoff of the aircraft, the second would take it up to the altitude that it is supposed to fly at, and the third would let it cruise as speeds that border on the hypersonic. Although I have not read the patent,  I suspect that the innovation that is being claimed here is the single piece of equipment (i.e., the aircraft) being designed to work with the three engine technologies in three different stages of flight, and that the innovation is not in the inventions of the engine types themselves, although there could be some optimization/modification of the engines being contemplated for the application at hand.  There also ought to be some innovative ideas related to the shape of the aircraft and the placement of the engines.

Of course, filing patents is all about putting ideas that you consider implementable on the record and being acknowledged as the person who “owns” the idea, but it does not necessarily imply that the patents have been really implemented or are implementable in a practical sense in the near future.  In my past history, I have been fortunate  to have worked, in most cases with other people, on many concepts that have been patented, some of which have made it into real implementations, and many that have not.

In the case of this particular patent, I have my serious doubts about the design becoming reality in any practical sense for the purpose of moving passengers.   Factors that make me a skeptic include the development costs, the cost of the aircraft itself, its efficiency in terms of the cost of moving each passenger per mile, and finally the real need in our world for this kind of technology today.  In many cases patents are filed purely as a defensive measure, to let people know that you got the idea first, or to serve as a negotiating tool with your competition.  That having been said, I cannot completely discount the possibility of somebody somewhere convincing a military organization somewhere to spend billions of dollars for the purposes of building something based on this patent that improves our capability in the realm of waging war and killing people.  You do not have to look too far to see this kind of foolishness going on today. There is also a new field of commercial space flight that is emerging these days, where paying passengers can be given rides into space, for which some of this technology may be applicable. But if this idea becomes successful in that realm, only the super rich who can afford to pay humongous amounts of money for one-time thrills will be able to afford it.

People might argue that my viewpoint regarding the practical use of this technology is typical of those who have no real vision for the future.  After all, most of the technology that has been developed that keeps the world going today had a cost associated with it, and if people had not invested in these technologies, we would not be where we are today in terms of capabilities, lifestyles, convenience and comfort.  But how much of convenience and comfort does a human being really need?  There is also the trickle down factor to be considered, where technology that is developed for one limited scenario bleeds into more general usage.  This is particularly true about innovations that have come out of the space program that have found their way into every day use.   Fair enough!  But, at the same time, the innovation that comes from the space program is considered useful all in itself even if there were no immediate secondary benefits.  This is because we human beings want to know more about the Universe we live in.  We want to advance our knowledge.  Can some similar case be made for the benefits of developing of a passenger aircraft as contemplated in the patent?

We know that the concept of a super-fast aircraft did not work out from an economic perspective in the case of the Concorde (which was also a relatively much slower aircraft).  There is even the possibility that new aircraft technologies that have been introduced recently can end up not being successful in the long run.  Aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 are huge risks for their manufacturers, and it is quite possible that the companies may not even recoup their expenses over the lifetimes of the aircraft. The aircraft being contemplated in the patent would cost much more to develop, purchase and operate.  All things considered, will Boeing or Airbus even attempt to build a passenger aircraft that travels this fast?

Regardless, even if there was enough of a motivation to try to develop an aircraft as contemplated in the invention, and even if there were enough people willing to pay for flying in the aircraft so that a profit could be made in spite of the monumental developmental and manufacturing cost, what kind of real world scenario really demands/needs such a capability as far as speed is concerned?  Most leisure travelers are unlikely to be able to afford to fly such an aircraft.   If at all, this could turn into a business tool, a military boondoggle, or a toy for rich people. (I believe that when it comes to conducting business, we are definitely capable of coming up with some new reasoning for needing to use an aircraft of this type, finding a way to justify the cost based on what is likely to be some kind of hokey cost benefit analysis.  After all, there are a lot of companies today that still think it makes sense to own and use private luxury jets.  This is how business works.)  In my mind the above scenarios would amount to the use of technology just because it can exist and not because it is necessary.  Basically this would be about spending without having a good reason to do so.  What good will come out of any of it?

There is some commonality of this scenario with the story of a lot of the technology being developed in recent years in the field of electronics and communications.  The significant driver for advancements in this field is entertainment (perhaps it actually all starts out with porn).  Companies want to outdo their competition in this business, so that people with money to burn (and sometimes even people who cannot afford it) will try to buy their product.  A lot of resources of all kinds are spent in this regard, and the primary motivation is creating wealth and putting money into the pockets of those involved.  This is also my story, having worked for many years in the industry to make a living by advancing technologies for the purposes of delivering entertainment. I suppose there is nothing wrong with all of this.  This is the way capitalism works.

How much of the impact of new technologies really trickles down to the people whose lives really need to be improved? I have a lot of doubt in this regard about a lot of the stuff that is being worked on today. As I grow older I have more and more difficulty coming to terms with the development and use of technology just for technology’s sake.  I hope that the aircraft described above just remains a concept in somebody’s mind.