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Vanderbilt engineers lead unmanned space craft software initiative

Since there will be no human pilots on the unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous space craft of the future, the computers flying them will have to be pretty darned smart. Maybe even a few orders of magnitude smarter than the ones running “smart” equipment these days.

This summer Vanderbilt engineering researchers kicked off a $5 million ground-breaking effort to develop the computer software required to operate the next generation of military and space vehicles safely and reliably.

The Vanderbilt Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS) is heading up a team that includes researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University, along with several industry partners. Team members from the five year project, funding by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research met in Atlanta July 7 to begin their work.

“The military has developed exciting new aerospace technologies in recent years, but the increasing capability and complexity has also intensified the risks of failure in systems that absolutely require high levels of confidence and reliability,” said Janos Sztipanovits, ISIS director and E. Bronson Ingram Distinguished Professor of Engineering.

“Everyone talks about ‘smart systems’ technology, but it’s not safe enough yet to risk the equipment and ultimately the lives of people who will depend on it,” he says.

“Smart systems” technologies such as flight-control systems and other intelligent systems on airplanes, automobiles, in security systems and in cell phones are called “embedded systems” because the computing apparatus is integrated with mechanical equipment.

Before the advent of “smart systems,” computer scientists did not have to consider the physical realities of mechanics in their software designs, other than such physical requirements as lighting up a computer screen or running a printer.

But with “smart systems,” computer scientists have to literally think outside the box because the computer has to control mechanical systems that obey the laws of physics, as well as the man-made, mathematical laws of computer science.

The underlying challenge is the need to marry two complex disciplines that diverged years ago, Sztipanovits says. Physics, meet Computer Science.

But getting the right hand to know what the left hand is doing-much less clasp– is profoundly more difficult to do than it is to imagine, Sztipanovits says. ISIS began tackling that challenge years ago by pioneering a variety of software systems that enable disparate computing systems to work smoothly together and to empower these computer systems to grapple successfully-and safely-with mechanical systems.

Along the way, ISIS has developed long-term collaborations with other university pioneers in embedded systems, and three of these partners are joining ISIS in this project, which is entitled “Frameworks and Tools for High-Confidence Design of Adaptive, Distributed, Embedded Control Systems.”

The project includes four divisions of research. The first involved development of embedded systems theory, in which much of the integration of computer science and physical science will be achieved. The second task involves development of a software design and verification approach that uses computer modeling to coordinate and control computer component software. The third emphasis works to eliminate ambiguity in the design process. The fourth part of the project creates experimental testbeds to validate the research in the context of aerospace vehicles.

“Our approach integrates the complete design development and maintenance cycle, including verification, validation, test procedures, and life-cycle updates,” Sztipanovits says.

This research will ultimately benefit private sector embedded systems development as well as military systems, Sztipanovits says.
“Commercial computational tools now focus on only one aspect of the development cycle, and this piecemeal approach is not sufficient for systems that require high degrees of confidence.” With the development of new software tools, commercial applications will also increase in reliability.

ISIS is an internationally recognized research organization focused on advanced technologies for intelligent systems and software.


Janos Sztipanovits Institute for Software Integrated Systems