Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Transportation Bug Technology

Computer Error Caused Qantas Jet Mishap 389

Posted by kdawson
from the gimme-back-my-stick dept.
highways sends word that preliminary investigations into a Qantas Airbus A330 mishap where 51 passengers were injured has concluded that it was due to the Air Data Inertial Reference System feeding incorrect information into the flight control system — not interference from passenger electronics, as Qantas had initially claimed. Quoting from the ABC report: "Authorities have blamed a faulty onboard computer system for last week's mid-flight incident on a Qantas flight to Perth. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said incorrect information from the faulty computer triggered a series of alarms and then prompted the Airbus A330's flight control computers to put the jet into a 197-meter nosedive ... The plane was cruising at 37,000 feet when a fault in the air data inertial reference system caused the autopilot to disconnect. But even with the autopilot off, the plane's flight control computers still command key controls in order to protect the jet from dangerous conditions, such as stalling, the ATSB said."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Computer Error Caused Qantas Jet Mishap

Comments Filter:
  • uhh huhs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pak9rabid (1011935) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:37AM (#25379359)
    I'm sure this comes as no surprise to the /. community. Nice to see the truth actually did surface though.
  • Questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:37AM (#25379361) Homepage Journal
    From TFA:

    "About two minutes after the initial fault, (the air data inertial reference unit) generated very high, random and incorrect values for the aircraft's angle of attack," the ATSB said in a statement.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but don't most modern aircraft have an inertial navigation system and a seperate angle of attack transmitter protruding from the plane? Why no redundancy?

    The incident was the fourth involving Qantas planes in two-and-a-half months[read TFA for the other 3 incidents]...

    The plane's French-based manufacturer has issued an advisory on the problem and will also issue special operational engineering bulletins to airlines that fly A330s and A340s fitted with the same air data computer, the ATSB said.

    Does Qantas' aircraft maintenance suck or does Airbus' quality control suck? Do both suck?

    Finally, shame on the PR guys for blaming passenger electronics. Maybe it's a feature, not a bug...in case any government decides that they want to make another 9/11 ;)

    • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:54AM (#25379449)

      They never did, the initial reports that they were looking at laptop was a mistake by the journalist. Qantas said they were looking at the onboard computers (ie. the computer that was flying the plane) and the journalist thought computers that were on board (ie. the laptops that passengers were using).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I suspect its more blame shifting. In Australia, Qantas have come under scrutiny for a spate of recent problems with their planes. Every other week its some kind of mechanical malfunction or whatnot. This is especially stinging as Qantas has a excellent reputation for safety. So they are eager to get the problem as far away from themselves as quickly as possible.
      • Re:Questions: (Score:4, Informative)

        by dangitman (862676) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:30AM (#25379633)
        Except that it was a journalist who made the claim of interference from a passenger's computer, not QANTAS.
      • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Informative)

        by daver00 (1336845) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:53AM (#25379721)

        Qantas HAD an excellent reputation for safety, but that is surely history now. What was it about 6-12 months ago they moved all of their international flights maintainance offshore. Qantas engineers went on strike etc. Lo and behold yet another outsourcing operation is falling flat on its face, unfortunately this time it could come at the expense of lives.

        I'd be staying well away from Qantas international flights until they sort their shit out.

        • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

          by aussie_a (778472) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @03:24AM (#25379871) Journal

          If Qantas cuts the costs of maintenance to such a degree that fatalities are not only likely, but inevitable, can anyone actually be charged with murder?

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by u38cg (607297)
            No. They will have a chain of delegated responsibility from the board to the contractor. The blame will lie with whoever "didn't tell them about it" (ie kept their mouths shut because they'd lose the contract).
    • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by The Good Jim (642796) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:02AM (#25379495)
      Umm... the attitude sensor was a Northrop Grumman part, used in some Airbus models (2 A330 models, and A340) and "some other non-Airbus" aircraft. So it doesn't sound like an Airbus problem - it may even also be a Boeing problem! And it sounds like a software problem, not a Queerarse maintenance issue, for once! But what happened to quadruplex-redundant FBW - are only the flight control computers truly quadruplex redundant? It sounds like a single point of failure in a design which should have considerable redundancy. Jim
      • by S-100 (1295224)
        Quantas chose Airbus, so Quantas will have to take the blame for problems like this. The Airbus design philosophy has a greater dependence on flight control software. This added complexity has caused crashes in the past, and mishaps like this are to be expected. Thankfully, the defect only resulted in a transient out-of-control situation. Good thing this didn't happen on final (or at V1).
        • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Informative)

          by Achromatic1978 (916097) <robert@@@chromablue...net> on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @03:12AM (#25379807)
          Qantas. Not Quantas.

          Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services.

    • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

      by William Robinson (875390) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:48AM (#25379705)

      Why no redundancy?

      Exactly my thought.

      IANAE, but the Wikipedia says An ADIRU acts as a "single, fault tolerant" source for both pilots of an aircraft., and there are 3 ADIRUs.

      From TFA,

      faulty computer triggered a series of alarms and then prompted the Airbus A330's flight control computers to put the jet into a 197-metre nosedive.

      I wonder whether the control computers are programmed to take decision to nosedive just like that OR consult other ADIRUs OR alarm the crew before taking that kind of decision.

      Having worked for nuclear installations where I designed automations for, which always demanded to have 2 out of 3 voting redundancy and a careful fault tree analysis making sure no single point of failure would lead to any kind of disaster, I feel the control computer might have been taking decision without consulting other ADIRUs OR all 3 ADIRUs went bad at the same time. And both cases look very scary.

      Just my thoughts.

    • by RichiH (749257)

      > Does Qantas' aircraft maintenance suck or does Airbus' quality control suck? Do both suck?

      You hear a lot about Qantas failures, almost nothing about Airbus failures, at not any more than with the other companies. Without knowing much about Qantas, I suspect the mainly use Airbus & internal QA/maint sucks.

    • by aussie_a (778472)

      Does Qantas' aircraft maintenance suck

      Considering they've recently shipped it overseas where its cheaper (as opposed to being better), I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case.

      I never heard about this sort of thing before Qantas moved their maintenance offshore.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FriendlyLurker (50431)

      Does Qantas' aircraft maintenance suck or does Airbus' quality control suck? Do both suck?

      Australia is big, really big. I leave Sydney heading north, watch one full length movie, have a snooze, watch another full length movie then flick over to the map and get depressed... I have watched the only two decent films on offer, am already sick of the flight to Europe but I still have not even left Aussie borders. So with that in mind, my money is on Airbus's unit testing that sucks. Qantas is more than likely just the beta tester who runs the most miles.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by FriendlyLurker (50431)

        P.S. Qantas never claimed it was passenger electronics. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) http://www.atsb.gov.au/newsroom/2008/release/2008_43.aspx [atsb.gov.au] said that laptops could have interfered with the plane's on-board computer system... but the bureau also said in the same breath that it's too early to make that judgment. From that bland boring statement you arrive at Slashdots and dozens of other sensationlist news headlines: "Qantas Blames Wireless For Aircraft Incidents" http://mobile.slashdot.o [slashdot.org]

  • well duh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Brain Damaged Bogan (1006835) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:38AM (#25379365)
    ...but don't expect the airlines to care about the facts when they decide to stop letting you use electronic devices on their flights. Common sense didn't get in the way of them banning nailclippers, shaving razors, liquids and many other innocuous day-to-day items.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:38AM (#25379369)
    ...tried turning it off and then on again.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ...tried turning it off and then on again.

      Blue Sky of Death?

      I know, ouch. X/

  • by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:44AM (#25379389) Homepage Journal

    put the jet into a 197-meter nosedive.

    I've been in nose dives before.. it's awesome fun. Everyone is screaming and the assholes who refuse to keep their seatbelt fastened while seated quickly learn the *reason* why they request you to do this.

    People pay good money for this experience [gozerog.com], and with a little malfunction or two they give it to you for free. When you throw in the fact that you could very well be experiencing the last few minutes of your short pathetic little life - you can't get a better adrenaline rush.

  • by Dutch Gun (899105) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:46AM (#25379403)

    ...until you get all the bugs worked out of those systems. And unfortunately, lessons of these kinds are often paid in tragedy. These passengers should consider themselves lucky that the pilots reacted so quickly.

    Not trying to be too flippant, as I can scarcely imagine the complexity of trying to create what essentially needs to be an infallible system in such a complex problem space. As a programmer, thinking about putting my life in the hands of a computer program scares the living hell out of me. The whole issue is that computers, by and large, lack "common sense", and are prone to accept garbage input without question.

    Apparently, this was caused by "a malfunctioning computer". Isn't there sort of redundancy check on anything that could cause the computer to send the plane plummeting toward the earth? One faulty computer can cause this? I'm sure the article is over-simplifying the problem, but still...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Cochonou (576531)
      A faulty computer system can result from a software bug (e.g. Ariane 5 first flight), or from an hardware malfunction/maintenance issue. It is not yet clear what the nature of the problem was.
      • by AJWM (19027) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @03:05AM (#25379777) Homepage

        Strictly speaking, the Ariane 5 first flight mishap was a specification bug, not a coding bug, so it depends on your definition as to whether it was really a "software" bug. (Even more strictly speaking, it was a procedures bug: they left running an inertial measurement unit that wasn't needed after launch (it provided ground reference for the nav system while on the pad). They'd done this on Ariane 4 but the 4's flight profile didn't take the unit out of limits the way 5's did.)

    • "Apparently, this was caused by "a malfunctioning computer". Isn't there sort of redundancy check on anything that could cause the computer to send the plane plummeting toward the earth? One faulty computer can cause this? I'm sure the article is over-simplifying the problem, but still..."

      Yes. It's called "a pilot". Under some circumstances "plummeting towards the earth" is a legitimate maneuver. Keeping it there too long isn't...unless of course you're stopping a hijacking. [wikipedia.org]

    • by Rakishi (759894)

      Pilots aren't infallible and make mistakes often enough. In other words a computer system doesn't need to be perfect to be better than what it's "replacing."

    • by jamesh (87723) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @03:38AM (#25379931)

      Thanks, I'll pass on that flight ... until you get all the bugs worked out of those systems

      It's interesting the way people rationalize things isn't it?

      Statistically, you are far more likely to die in a car on the way to work than you are in a commercial passenger aircraft. Statistically, the computer system in a commercial passenger aircraft is far less likely to fsck things up than a human pilot (although that's saying nothing about the _size_ of the fsckup, should one occur...)

      I drive around 600km a week in my car. A lot of that is spent at 110km/hour on a freeway, and at 100km/hour along some reasonably windy and hilly roads. I often think about the ways that such an activity could end rather badly for me, but it doesn't worry me greatly.

      In about a week though I'm going to be getting onto an airplane for the first time in about 28 years, and the thought of it has me a little nervous - far more so than driving a car which is, statistically speaking, far more dangerous.

      A car crash here in Australia will often make the news, possibly only locally unless more than a few people lost their lives. A plane crash of any reasonable size will make the news world wide, and will probably continue to do so for weeks after the event. The Quantas Airbus 'mishap' didn't kill anyone, and the majority of the passengers have probably mostly healed whatever injuries they did sustain by now, and yet here in Australia the incident still makes the news daily. The logical part of your brain should tell you that that is a comforting thing - it's so unusual that it is still newsworthy a week later. The less logical parts of your brain though are constantly reminded that while safe, air travel is not 100% safe.

      For me I think the difference is the time I will have to contemplate things should something go wrong. In a car, the time between the realization of error (mine or someone elses) and things ending badly is going to be measured in seconds. In an airplane, the time between when I realize that things are not as they should be and the time when I won't be thinking anymore could be measured in minutes. That is a pretty chilling thought for me...

      • by Viol8 (599362)

        Sometimes people rationalise things correctly. I've been in 4 car crashes in my life , 2 were my fault, 2 weren't. I'm still here uninjured to write about them. What are the chances I'd still be alive if I'd been involved in 4 plane crashes? Pretty damn close to zero I'd say.

      • by tomRakewell (412572) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @08:45AM (#25381781)

        In an airplane, the time between when I realize that things are not as they should be and the time when I won't be thinking anymore could be measured in minutes. That is a pretty chilling thought for me...

        Don't worry! Most of the time, you never know what hit you in an airplane catastrophe. If the aircraft breaks up at 35,000 feet (as a result of a mid-air collision, fuel tank explosion, terrorist attack, etc.), you're none the wiser. You'll probably be killed by flying debris within a second, and if you survive the break-up, you'll have the oxygen boil out of your blood a few seconds after that.

        Much more frequently, you'll hit a mountain while flying in zero visibility. Zero seconds to worry.

        A large portion of accidents occur when the plane lands. Tail or wing strike, skidding off the runway, etc. These calamities are likely to occur even more rapidly than a car crash. You probably won't be able to complete the sentence "Oh shi----!"

        Or maybe your plane is overweight and can't get enough power to take-off properly. In this case, you've got 20 seconds max to contemplate your fate. And it will probably take you 10 seconds realize that it is really happening. "Why is it taking so long to take off? Is the plane really flipping upside down? Is this REALLY happening?? Oh, oh, yes, it is..."

        Being in a plane that plummets to the ground for a minute or two isn't that likely. When seated on your flight, you should really be aware that your life could be snuffed out without warning at any minute.

  • by ocularDeathRay (760450) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:53AM (#25379439) Journal
    SOOOOO.... you are saying the inertial dampeners were offline?
    • by Kjella (173770)

      SOOOOO.... you are saying the inertial dampeners were offline?

      If the inertial dampeners were offline they'd only shake around a bit like on a bumpy road. No need for seat belts - or even seats at all for people along the back row. Which is actually quite realistic really, except the reason they wouldn't need them should be that they're splattered against the hull.

    • Yes, but that was only because Kirk told the flight computer that "everything I tell you is a lie, including this". Typical. If I ever see him boarding my plane, I'm switching to Klingon Air.

  • by Davemania (580154) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @01:56AM (#25379461) Journal
    This isn't an isolated incident. Although I think the string of technical incidents suffered by Qantas isn't a coincidence either. "A global alert was issued in 2005 after a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 en-route to Kuala Lumpur from Perth experienced similar problems. Investigators found a software glitch in a unit made by the same US manufacturer as the one in the Qantas plane combined with a mechanical problem." http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,24499849-15306,00.html [news.com.au]
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by fatmal (920123)

      a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 en-route to Kuala Lumpur from Perth experienced similar problems.

      And the Qantas flight was also going to Perth? I blame all the iron ore thats still in the ground around Perth!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 en-route to Kuala Lumpur from Perth experienced similar problems.

        And the Qantas flight was also going to Perth? I blame all the iron ore thats still in the ground around Perth!

        Obviously the government should take all possible action to have it dug up and removed from the country as fast as possible. Won't somebody think of the children?

        • by deniable (76198)

          China's way ahead of you on that one. China for child safety!

          Actually, I think it's the special transmitters we put in at Exmouth. It's part of a state government initiative, "F*** the Tourists." A definite vote getter.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by TimSSG (1068536)
      I think I found an link talking about the 2005 Boeing 777 incident. http://www.airlinesafety.com/faq/777DataFailure.htm [airlinesafety.com] Tim S
  • So the autopilot ...jumped?
  • by jonaskoelker (922170) <jonaskoelker AT gnu DOT org> on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:39AM (#25379673) Homepage

    As we all know, Qantas never crashed. Def-definitely never crashed.

  • Quantas' claims (Score:5, Informative)

    by myxiplx (906307) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @02:41AM (#25379679)

    From the summary: "not interference from passenger electronics, as Qantas had initially claimed"

    Care to show me where Quantas claimed that? It seems to be all the rage to say that Quantas are shifting the blame, but so far I've seen nothing at all to indicate that was the case. What I *have* seen was a statement from Quantas saying they were investigating passenger electronics as a possible cause. Now I know it doesn't make such good news, but I'm afraid there's a world of difference between being investigating something and trying to place the blame on it. Unfortunately that's a distinction that appears to be lost on the crowd...

    • "We're investigating passenger electronics as a possible cause" is just marketing speak for "While we have no idea what happened, we want you to think it was passenger electronics."

  • As they are as stupid as cows.
    Errors are only made by Humans, from the design up to the operation level.
    These "announcements" are made just to hide some possibly high level human error.
    If a sensor is feeding wrong data it's because of either a human engineering error or because of some fault that goes undetected (by humans)!
  • .. this wouldn't have been a sidebar on page 5 of most papers. There would be 200 dead people lying in pieces near perth. Any computer malfunction which causes an aircraft to nosedive 650 feet in seconds is a VERY serious bug.

  • DO178B (Score:5, Informative)

    by gnieboer (1272482) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @03:45AM (#25379989)
    For those that are interested in coding/test methodologies, the FAA created a system called "DO178B" which defined as set of software assurance standards for aircraft. (Note, it's not coding standards, it's assurance standards)

    Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DO-178B [wikipedia.org]

    It set different standards for different types of code. The movies would be Class E, a non-critical nav system maybe C or D, FCS probably A. But even then, the code can be made modular to decrease the assurance level required. For instance, an artificial horizon needs to work, right? But you normally have more than one in a cockpit. If one goes bad, you can use the other, not catastrophic. But the key is the pilot(s) need to recognize that it's busted. What if one froze in place in flight during landing? The pilot might follow it and go ka-boom.
    So by itself, an electronic artificial horizon would require level A ($$$) software so that it 'never' fails. This is very very expensive (for level A the post-compiler machine code must be analyzed for possible compiler issues, and MC/DC http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modified_Condition/Decision_Coverage [wikipedia.org] coverage)
    So instead, they write it to a lower level, and then create a small set of code that cross-checks everything and kills off any horizon that's malfunctioning by placing a big "X" (or whatever) on the screen instead. Lower risk and greatly reduced cost.
    • Re:DO178B (Score:4, Informative)

      by digitig (1056110) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @04:08AM (#25380083)

      For those that are interested in coding/test methodologies, the FAA and EUROCAE jointly created a system called "DO178B/ED12b" which defined as set of software assurance guidelines for aircraft.

      The important bit in that change is that they are guidelines, not standards; DO178b/ED12b is not mandatory (although compliance makes certification a whole lot easier).

  • by vorlich (972710) on Wednesday October 15, 2008 @05:22AM (#25380387) Homepage Journal
    histories to date. Qantas is one of the safest airlines in the world. Anyway, aside from the likes of Ariana,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariana_Afghan_Airlines [wikipedia.org] air travel remains amongst the safest forms of mechanised transport. Compare and contrast the risks of road traffic accidents and their level of fatality amongst the under 30's.

"No job too big; no fee too big!" -- Dr. Peter Venkman, "Ghost-busters"

Working...