Monday, January 26, 2015

High Time for Satellite Tracking of All International Flights

This coming March 8 will mark one year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing somewhere over the Indian Ocean.  The wreckage has never been found, although communications experts used some almost accidental satellite-transponder data to estimate the last known location of the plane.  At the time, I recall thinking that if I was an airline and owned a number of high-value mobile assets known as airliners, I would want some way of knowing where each one was every minute or so, anywhere in the world.   After all, the technology for tracking the much cheaper assets called semi-trailer trucks has been around for years.  The little white domes on truck cabs report minute-by-minute locations to a data center where operators can pay a monthly fee to any one of a number of firms to keep tabs on shipments, and truck drivers too, for that matter.  But there is no international requirement for airlines to do the same.

Last week, the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) waded in with a recommendation for all passenger airliners to be equipped with improved location technology.  The board admitted it was motivated partly by Flight 370's disappearance, and called both for improvements in in-flight tracking and in "black-box" technology. 

The in-flight tracking part seems to be pretty straightforward technologically.  It would operate more or less the same way as the truck-tracking system.  Every minute or so, a GPS receiver on the plane would send its location to a satellite in view, and the satellite would relay that information to a data center, where it would be logged and made available in the event of an incident of interest.  The only slightly tricky part would be identifying which satellite to use.  But there are already geostationary satellites in orbit such as Inmarsat which provide virtually world-wide coverage, and the missing bits of Earth near the poles could be made up for by linking to numerous low-earth-orbit satellites in polar orbits. 

The technology is not nearly so much a hurdle as the cost and the peculiar structure of international aviation regulations.  The NTSB's recommendations went to the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration, and if the FAA adopts them they will be obligatory for all U. S. airlines—but nobody else.  Because the U. S. operates only a fraction of international flights over large bodies of water where the technology would be most useful, the idea will not succeed without international cooperation, and that means the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

The ICAO is a United Nations body in charge of international standards for, well, civil aviation, as you might expect.  As such, its rulings have no force of law in individual countries unless the countries' own aviation regulations require that its carriers follow ICAO rules as well, which most do.  It was a 2008 ICAO ruling, for example, that required all air traffic controllers and flight crew members involved in international flights to be proficient in English.  I'm rather surprised that it took until 2008, but after all, everything takes a while at the UN.

The question is whether and when the ICAO might follow the NTSB's lead if the NTSB prevails with the FAA to make international-flight GPS tracking mandatory.  Enough alphabet soup for you?  The whole process—from tragic accident to technical recommendations to changes in laws and regulations—is typical of how safety technology develops in coordination with regulations requiring its use.  And the regulatory part is particularly tricky when it involves spending money.  The requirement that pilots speak English can be met by changing hiring practices, but GPS tracking will involve both up-front and ongoing expenses for new hardware—which itself needs to be standardized somehow—and rental fees to the commercial firms that operate the satellite transponders used to convey the location data.  Fortunately, we are not talking about large bandwidths here—the equivalent of a single cellphone text message every minute or so would be sufficient.  But coordinating all this will take some doing, and coordination of any kind at the level of the ICAO is a challenging and slow-moving process at best.  If they took till only seven years ago to agree on a common language for radio communications from international flights, the ICAO isn't going to churn out new GPS-location rules overnight, you can be sure. 

The other part of the NTSB recommendations concerns the nature of the onboard flight data recorders.  Now that video cameras and recording equipment are so inexpensive, the NTSB says we should have cockpit video as well as audio recorders, and that controls for the entire system should be inaccessible from the cockpit.  (There is some suspicion that the radar-transponder system of Flight 370, which works only within range of ground-based tracking radars, was intentionally disabled by the pilot.)  Also, the NTSB floated the idea (so to speak) that the flight recorders should be housed in buoyant housings and ejected upon impact so that they can remain on the surface, where their radio signals could be more easily received than the limited-range and limited-time sonar emissions that the units currently send out underwater. 

All these are good ideas, and if the FAA adopts them they will make an already safe U. S. air-travel system even safer, or at least increase the likelihood of finding any flights that go down in deep water.  And the information from such accidents is always valuable in preventing the next one, whether it was caused by mechanical failure, human error, or evil intent.

Nevertheless, I am not going to be holding my breath until the ICAO follows suit.  You would think that the international carriers themselves would have adopted something similar to the truck-tracking systems years ago, but there may be a mentality in place that makes such a system seem unnecessary because of the vanishingly small number of incidents in which it would turn out to be useful.  But once GPS tracking for international flights is in place, I bet folks find other uses for it, for things like fuel-economy efforts and even weather tracking.  But first, the ICAO has to get in gear, so stay tuned.

Sources:  The article "NTSB:  Planes Should Have Technologies So They Can Be Found" by Joan Lowy of the Associate Press was carried by numerous outlets, including ABC News on Jan. 22 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Inmarsat, and the ICAO.

Addendum Feb. 1:  Edwin Doetzal wrote me on Jan. 31 as follows:

"Your analysis of MH370 contained a couple issues:
Airliners do often have SATCOM tracking 'like trucks'.  On MH370, this system was turned off along with the radio transponder.
ADS-B is the new satellite based air traffic control system that will replace the radio based air traffic control system and is already being implemented through efforts by NAVCanada and ICAO.
What is currently in discussion are new systems such as AFIRS that would stream amounts of data automatically or by trigger in an emergency as well as explosive jettisoned FDR/CVR units.  Knowing where an aircraft was is of course not enough without the detailed DAQ information that might explain why the emergency happened and what action was taken by the flight crew.  A truck's limited DAQ can be retrieved from the ditch.  Please be assured that an airliner is a much more sophisticated system than a truck.
It was somewhat troubling to see such an article on an 'engineering ethics' blog.  With respect, it would seem that you are speaking outside your professional scope.  A retraction would appear appropriate.

Edwin Doetzel

Lay Person"

It was careless of me to imply that airliners had no such tracking systems, and I apologize
for leaving that impression.  In the space I had, I meant to concentrate not so much on the technology as on the international coordination that would be needed to implement it uniformly so that flights such as MH370 would not slip through the cracks.  My thanks to Mr. Doetzel for the correction.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Passing of Google Glass

Most people who are even slightly technology-aware have heard of Google Glass, the wearable head-mounted display device that Google introduced almost two years ago amid a blizzard of publicity.  Priced at $1500, Google Glass was never intended to be a mass-market product.  As of tomorrow, Google Glasses will become collector's items, because the company announced last week that the product will no longer be available.  According to Will Oremus at, the press release announcing the news tried to put a positive spin on the situation with phrases like "moving even more from concept to reality."  So the idea of a wearable camera/monitor isn't dead—just the particular embodiment of it in Google Glass.

I could have told them this was coming, because about a month ago, I finally got to try out a pair.  A student of mine had borrowed some from a friend of his in Austin, and was walking around campus letting all and sundry try them on.  I wear ordinary glasses, so the fit was somewhat of a problem.  But I managed to see the little display, and then the battery ran down, so my experience was very limited.  Nevertheless, it was enough for the Stephan Kiss of Technological Death to take place. 

More times than I can count, I have tried out a new technology just before it's about to disappear.  We bought a VHS player right after DVDs came out.  We got a DVD player about the time BluRay came out.  I bought a cellphone with a color screen about the time the iPhone came out.  Well, you get the idea.  In any market, there are early adopters, then the great mass of people who buy a thing after the early adopters have worked the bugs out, and then late adopters like me who come along after everybody else has dropped a product for the next hot item. 

Why wasn't Google Glass more successful?  From a late-adopter point of view, I can tell you one reason:  it didn't promise to do anything for me that was worth $1500 of my money.  From the start, I got the sense that a lot of the people buying them were doing it for the same reason that they bought Rolex watches.  A Rolex doesn't keep time any better than a Timex.  But a Rolex tells other people you are the kind of person who can afford a Rolex.  So Google Glass became a fashion brand for the folks who just couldn't wait to show up at the office wearing another expensive personal item.  I'm a little surprised that nobody came up with an imitation knockoff Google Glass that looked the same as the real thing but wasn't functional, priced at $99.99.  Only it would have been embarrassing for people to come up to you and ask to try them out, and you'd have to tell them sorry, the battery just ran down.

Probably the most useful feature of Google Glass was also the most controversial:  the little camera that could record your environment without anyone knowing for sure whether you're recording or not.  Spy cameras have been around for some time, but if they're designed and placed right, nobody knows about them except for the operator.  You see a Google Glass on someone and right away, you knew they could be recording you.  It was a little bit like walking around with a 35-mm camera in front of your face all the time.  No wonder some people got annoyed.  Nevertheless, Oremus reports that the most serious business customers of the technology used the camera feature to capture things like pictures of sides of beef for FDA inspectors, and whether Dr. Whozis left any forceps inside his last gall-bladder-surgery patient.  So it's likely that face-mounted cameras in some form will show up in places where the product or service is pricey enough to justify the expense of whatever comes after Google Glass.

No one can currently beat Google at what they do best, but designing hardware for personal use is very different from the massive Internet-based data crunching that got Google where it is today.  Technology geeks in particular tend to be blind to some issues that the general public care about deeply.  When Henry Ford first marketed his Model T, he later recalled that he said in 1909, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  And for many years, Ford beat his competition on price and performance with all-black cars.  But as automobiles became more of a commodity, other makers found that they could attract customers away from Ford by offering a variety of paint colors, and Ford eventually had to follow suit. 

Engineer and author Henry Petroski likes to say that failure is often more instructive than success.  By failure, he usually means things like collapsing bridges, but the failure of a new technology to meet its sales target is still a failure, though of a different and less hazardous kind than the failure of a bridge or a building.  In a free market, market failures are inevitable, and it's not like everybody at Google is now out on the street because they can't sell any more glasses.  In general, wearable technology seems to be the wave of the future in some form, and it's just a question of what form it will take. 

I think Google took on a major challenge by messing around with a person's face.  The face, and particularly the eyes, are where we look first when we meet another person.  We have had a few hundred years to get used to the idea of people wearing ordinary glasses.  They started out as expensive specialty items too.  A graphic on the Fashionisto website says that in the U. S. of the 1700s, a pair of eyeglasses could set you back about $200, which is like about $6,000 today.  So regardless of who comes up with the next version of Google Glass technology, they face an uphill battle in getting us used to the idea of having some active technology in the line of sight between soul and soul. 

Sources:  The article "Google Glass Is Finally Dead.  Ish." by Will Oremus appeared on Slate's website at .  The Fashionisto spectacle graphic can be found at  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on Google Glass, and the Henry Ford quote can be found at 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Incompetent Engineers: Marilynne Robinson and the Global Economy

Marilynne Robinson is a historically-minded writer of fiction and essays.  In one essay entitled "Family" she decries the damage wrought by the fact that the "marketplace gods," as she calls them, are now in ultimate charge of the global economy.  The result, she says, is a return of Social Darwinism—the nineteenth-century idea that prosperity and success are rewards for the intelligent, the industrious, and the able, and poverty and failure are equally just rewards for the stupid, the lazy, and the incompetent.  The Social Darwinism of the 1800s led straight to eugenics, which acquired a bad reputation after the Nazi regime embraced it during World War II.  But in the ruthless international competition that currently prevails, she sees a return to the bad old days when a small, fantastically wealthy elite ruled over millions of industrial workers enslaved in unremitting toil.

So far, so conventional.  But toward the end of the essay, she takes an unexpected turn:
"Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother but the incompetent engineer . . . . When our great auto industry nearly collapsed, an elite of designers and marketing experts were surely to blame.  But the thousands thrown out of work by their errors were seen as the real problem." 

Robinson is good at questioning unspoken assumptions that most of us are so used to, we don't even realize they are there.  The assumption she challenges in this essay is that global competition is inevitable, and every industrialized nation must organize its institutions, including its educational system, governmental policies, and even its cultures and family structures, to succeed in the constant worldwide race to produce the most goods and services at the lowest prices.  And rather than simply deploring the way things are, she suggests that the problem may lie in a place we haven't looked—within the very elites we usually assume are the answer to the problem.

Robinson is right that the U. S. auto industry went through a steep decline in the 1980s.  The main reason for that decline was surging competition by Japanese automakers, who adapted many techniques developed in the U. S. for lean manufacturing and outran their former teachers.  To the extent that U. S. automotive engineers and managers got lazy and let things slide, she is absolutely right.  It took another decade for U. S. automakers to learn the hard lessons that Japanese competition taught them, but by 2000 the global shares of auto sales by U. S. and Japanese makers were about even.  Now that many Japanese firms have U. S. factories, the problem is not so clean-cut, but that specific incident has been taken care of. 

Both Japan and the U. S. now have China to worry about instead.  The effect of the globalized economy on the U. S. is an erosion of time available for family and family life.  Instead of one person in a family earning a living wage that suffices for a spouse and children, Robinson cites the many workers today who "patch together a living out of two or three part-time jobs, or work overtime as an employer's hedge against new hiring." 

What if Robinson's "incompetent engineers" had been competent, and had beaten the Japanese at their own game sooner?  Because the largest single expense in manufacturing tends to be labor, if the U. S. makers had quickly adopted the productivity-raising automation technologies that were such a large factor in making Japan more competitive, probably the U. S. workers who eventually lost manufacturing jobs later would have simply lost them sooner.  Clearly, what Robinson is calling for is not just competence in a narrow technical sense, but a larger vision of what purposes engineers serve, and what forms of life are encouraged or discouraged by engineering activities.

What would have to change for society to become less dominated by the ruthlessness of international competition and more hospitable to things Robinson says she misses:  "humor, pleasure, and charm; courage, dignity, and graciousness; loyalty, respect, and good faith"? 

Engineers tend to think in terms of systems, and when asked a question about a large system, the engineering answer tends to be framed in the same terms of system-wide changes.  Some would look toward legal and regulatory solutions:  protective tariffs, restrictions on immigration, widespread unionization, and other changes historically associated with left-wing politics.  But people are not machines, and the kind of scientific approach that models cows as spheres for the purpose of analysis, and models entire populations as a bunch of numbers in a database somewhere, is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into this situation in the first place.

Besides the direct influence of elites through the powers they hold, elites also teach by example.  Civic, industry, and government leaders of earlier eras attempted to maintain public appearances that were consistent with good character and citizenship—things like charm, courage, dignity, graciousness, loyalty, and good faith.  They sometimes failed to show these traits of character in private, or occasionally in public, but the journalists of the day recognized the need to preserve the illusion of rectitude in many cases and refrained from plastering every famous citizen's misdeeds all over the countryside.  Scandals were reported, but they were rare enough to be scandalous.  By contrast, scandalous behavior in everything from sexual morality to profiteering appears to be the norm for many public figures today, at least judging by media coverage.

I don't know clearly how to express what I'm asking for.  Perhaps the essence of it is a reform of character starting with the individual, and a recognition that all the regulatory changes in the world will not reform an individual who has no example of good character and rectitude to look up to and to consider imitating.  If we want an economy in which family breadwinners are paid a living wage for a work schedule that leaves enough time to families to be families, and not just strangers sharing the same living quarters, we all have to value that way of life—have to value it more than just that additional dollar we use to buy that additional consumer item.  All of us, high and low, rich and poor, engineers and janitors, will have to undergo a radical change.  And then we will have to re-learn the democratic process of moving our society toward the vision laid out by people who see it better than most of us do—people like Marilynne Robinson. 

Sources:  Marilynne Robinson's book of essays and speeches The Death of Adam was published in 2005 by Picador.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the automotive industry.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Will 2015 Be The Year Commercial Drones Take Off?

If you had been in Boulder City, Nevada last December 19, you would have found Governor Brian Sandoval, a U. S. senator, U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, and representatives of a company that manufactures the Magpie, an unmanned aircraft, all gathered to watch the first official test flight at one of six new test facilities the FAA has established to explore how "unmanned aircraft systems" (UASs for short) can safely use the same airspace that is now occupied by manned aircraft.  A video of the test flight shows a man holding what looks like a large model plane.  At a signal, he heaves it into the air.  It flies about twenty feet and nose-dives into the gravel, bending its nose propeller and eliciting a groan from the crowd.

It wasn't exactly an auspicious start to a program that the FAA has undertaken to fast-track new regulations that will accommodate the increasing pressure on the agency to allow legal commercial use of UASs, commonly called drones, far beyond what present regulations permit.  But at least nobody was hurt, except maybe in the pride department.  As I noted in this space over a year ago, experimental drones can be deadly—a large one went amok in South Korea in 2013 and killed an engineer. 

What we are seeing in commercial drone development is a pattern that has played out repeatedly in one form or another whenever a potentially profitable technology outpaces the ability of a regulatory agency to adapt to it.  True to its generally good reputation among government agencies, the FAA is trying to catch up to the rapid advances in commercial drone technology.  But if history is any guide, we are in for some stirring times first.

Something similar happened when advances in radio technology during World War I led to the explosion of radio broadcasting stations in the early 1920s.  The creaky regulatory mechanism of the time stated that the Department of Commerce, which was charged with the task of regulating the new medium, could not deny licenses to any qualified applicant.  As a result, the airwaves got so crowded that in some locations radios were practically unusable.  Congress eventually acted, first by establishing the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, and then following it with the Federal Communications Commission in 1934, under whose ministrations we still operate today. 

Fortunately, the FAA is already up and running, so the situation is not as wild-westish as it could be.  The main issue facing the agency is not lack of regulatory authority—it has plenty of that—but the question of how to allow drones into the air in a way that both allows innovative commercial uses and preserves the exemplary safety record of U. S. air flights that has been achieved in recent years.  The experimental test sites the FAA has set up (besides Nevada, there are locations in Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia) can play a critical role in both uncovering unknown potential problems and in finding practical solutions to them.

Just as radio benefited from wartime technology advances, commercial drones benefit from the longer history and huge development effort that has gone into military drones.  In addition, advances in high-density batteries, software, and navigational aids such as GPS systems make it technically possible for drones to travel long distances autonomously.  However, the FAA is still uncomfortable with that.

The way things stand now, there are three classifications of drone regulations.  The only one that doesn't require the operator to obtain special permission is the hobby and recreational class, which has applied to operators of model aircraft for decades.  If you are a researcher, drone developer, or someone who has other good reasons to do not-for-pay work with drones, you can apply for a "civil UAS" permit.  Law enforcement agencies and other public organizations can obtain Certificates of Waiver or Authorization to conduct operations relating to their work.  But before the likes of Jeff Bezos can start delivering Amazon orders via drone, the rules—and maybe the technology too—will have to change. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but the start of a new year is a good time for making predictions, and if the following pans out, you heard it here first.  Let it be understood at the outset that I think the following would be a bad idea.  But that doesn't mean that somebody won't try it.  In 1982, a guy with more bravado than sense named Larry Walters tied a few dozen helium balloons to a lawn chair and floated over Long Beach until his balloons got tangled in a power line and he made it safely back to the ground.  I don't know what the payload capability of current small quadcopter-like drones is, but at some point, somebody will have the idea of ganging a bunch of them together to lift the weight of a small person.  This would be more of a stunt than a practical way of transporting people, but if the machines get cheap and powerful enough, it will happen. 

Of course, the FAA would disapprove of such a thing, and rightly so.  But if we do start seeing small packages being delivered by drones, it will happen only if the FAA and industrial interests figure out how to have all that air traffic moving safely and keeping out of the way of buildings, power lines, and giraffes, for that matter.  And if that infrastructure problem is solved, and battery technology advances to the point that you could safely build a helicopter-like backpack that was totally under software control, maybe we could see the day when people could literally fly to work.  Unless it rains, of course.

Sources:  The FAA's overall UAS website is, and their site stating the rules for hobby and recreational model-airplane flying is  I referred to a report on the Nevada test flight of Magpie carried by Gizmodo at  The six FAA UAS test locations are given at  Business Insider was the source of the commercial drone market estimate at  My blog "Drones, Air Safety, and the FAA" appeared on Nov. 4, 2013.