Feeds

Hefty IT prof develops robot to check that robots are safe

Metal fink rats out air-traffic machine in trials

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

A Turing-awardwinner* boffin in the States says he has developed new software which can test the safety of computer-controlled railways, air-traffic systems, hospital intensive-care monitors, enormous 600-tonne godzilla lorries and such like - all the many kinds of smart machinery which can kill people.

Automated "roundabout" air-traffic procedures don't always work

Computer says "prang"

Professor Edmund Clarke of Carnegie Mellon Uni, joint winner of the 2007 Turing Award, describes automated things which can kill you if they go wrong as "cyber-physical" systems. He and his assisant prof Andre Platzer say that cyber-physical systems are proliferating madly, and there's a lot more to come. Ideas such as smart energy grids, automated satnav-driven air traffic, self-driving or partially self-driving cars - and, of course, killer war robots - will be so complicated and potentially deadly that normal tests will never uncover all the ways they could go wrong.

"Bugs in complex cyber-physical systems like cars, aircraft, chips or medical devices are expensive to fix and may endanger human life," explains Platzer. "In transportation, the percentage of development cost spent on design and testing new control software is already well above 50 percent and is steadily rising."

The answer, according to Clarke and Platzer, is to skip out trial-and-error testing and instead use their new cyber-physical systems safety verifier. They say their new tech has already sniffed out a potentially fatal flaw in a system of "roundabouts" used in air-traffic control:

When two aircraft are on rapidly converging paths, one technique for avoiding collisions is for the system to order each pilot to turn right and then circle to the left until the aircraft can safely turn right again to resume their original paths. It's as if the aircraft are following a large traffic circle, or rotary, in the sky. But analysis by the Carnegie Mellon researchers identified a counterexample: when aircraft approach each other at certain angles, the roundabout maneuver actually creates a new collision course that, in the few seconds remaining before their paths cross, the pilots might not have time to recognize.

"With systems becoming more and more complex, mere trial-and-error testing is unlikely to detect subtle problems in system design that can cause disastrous malfunctions," says Clarke.

"Our method is the first that can prove these complex cyber-physical systems operate as intended, or else generate counterexamples of how they can fail using computer simulation."

In reassuring news for European rail passengers, it seems that the new kit has had a look at the continent's rail-signalling controls and given them a clean bill of health, finding no ways in which absentminded computers might accidentally ram trains into each other.

The new methods represent a step forward on "Model Checking", the technique which won Clarke his Turing. Model Checking works within finite-state systems like hardware and software design, and is widely used in such fields. But in a cyber-physical system where the real world injects infinite variability, the black-white-and-only-so-many-shades-of-grey Model Checking approach can't be used.

Hence the new toolset, which (obviously, duh) uses "algorithms that decompose the systems until they produce differential invariants — mathematical descriptions of parts of the system that always remain the same [and] can be used to prove the global logic".

No? Actually we didn't understand it either.

"Finding the [bugs] is actually the easy part," says Platzer. "Proving that they're fixed is hard."

It was clearly up to Carnegie Mellon to come up with something of this sort, anyway: as the institution which gave the world the 600-tonne robotic godzilla-lorry, it was incumbent on them to make such things safe.

One question does spring to mind, though. Presumably the robotic safety checker should itself be checked for infallibility, either using Model Checking or a version of itself. There's more on the new test-ware from Carnegie Mellon here. ®

*The Turing award is often described as the Nobel Prize in computing.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
SCREW YOU, Russia! NASA lobs $6.8bn at Boeing AND SpaceX to run space station taxis
Musk charging nearly half as much as Boeing for crew trips
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Thought that last dinosaur was BIG? This one's bloody ENORMOUS
Weighed several adult elephants, contend boffins
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
India's MOM Mars mission makes final course correction
Mangalyaan probe will feel the burn of orbital insertion on September 24th
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.