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Volume 6, Issue 694:  Wednesday, September 15, 2004

  • "Geeks Code for the Gold"
    Wired News (09/14/04); Delio, Michelle

    Athens, the site of this year's Olympic Games, is hosting a contest of another kind: The 16th annual International Olympiad in Informatics (http://olympiads.win.tue.nl/ioi/), where approximately 300 programmers from 80 nations are competing to see who can code the fastest through a series of challenges. Contestants are given a new problem to solve via coding each morning of the eight-day event; participants submit their solutions to a competition server that grades them according to their quality and refinement. The United States is represented by a quartet of high-school students comprising the USA Computing Olympiad (USACO), who trained prior to the IOI at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. USACO training involved intense five-hour coding sessions and workshops on strategy and problem-solving. This year's USACO team is sponsored by the ACM, Google, IBM, Usenix, and the Sans Institute. Head of media relations for this year's IOI games George Pofantis explains that the goal of the contest is to build a continuum for past and present by integrating the Olympic tradition with the latest scientific and technological developments. He adds, "Also we want to help develop the education of talented persons who are willing to help and work together with persons from other countries, sharing their scientific and cultural experiences, as well as provide an answer to those who believe that modern technology is out of hand and give credit to those who use technology as a means to achieve for noble and peaceful goals." Greek PC provider Altec is supplying the hardware for the IOI, while competitors will have the option of using Microsoft XP or Red Hat Linux 9.0 for their operating system.
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  • "On Fed Payroll, Hackers Seek to Save America"
    Reuters (09/14/04); Tanner, Adam

    As part of the Homeland Security Department's attempts to fortify the country's defenses, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in August launched a new cybersecurity facility where hackers test the vulnerability of critical systems in an isolated infrastructure spread out over 890 square miles of Idaho terrain. The results of the tests pinpoint weak areas in U.S. infrastructure--utilities, transportation systems, etc.--that cyberterrorists could exploit to wreak havoc. INEEL associate lab director Laurin Dodd says he strongly doubts that any Internet-linked system is immune to hacking. He adds that Internet connections are expanding so that infrastructure systems can be monitored at corporate headquarters, which only increases the risk of intrusion. Dodd says the only truly hack-proof computing system is one that is cut off from the outside, such as the system employed by the CIA. Lab officials note that the hacking exercises are internal to the facility and do not involve real-life entities, and they insist that the lab would only hire people with security clearances and no criminal history. However, INEEL remains tight-lipped about the background of staffers such as Jason Larsen, who breached a U.S. agency's computer system with the aid of a handheld computer. "This is one of the few places where it is legal to give people those kind of challenges," admits head of INEEL cybersecurity Robert Hoffman. INEEL is sponsored by the Energy Department.
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  • "Help Wanted by IT Services Firms"
    CNet (09/14/04); Frauenheim, Ed

    IT services companies such as IBM and Accenture are demanding employees with versatility and a wider range of skills, which means that unemployed professionals will need to obtain business training or experience in order to qualify for jobs as well as advancement. Analyst Marianne Hedin says firms "are looking for...a professional who can understand the technology issues that a company faces...and also understand what the business issues are, and be able to link the two." The tasks workers at services companies are addressing include the installation of business software programs, application writing, assisting the simplification of goods procurement for clients, and other projects where a sharp business sense is necessary. Services firms are undergoing a hiring resurgence--IBM, for instance, expects to hire 18,000 new workers this year, one-third of them for positions in the United States--while ambitious professionals are adapting themselves to the new job environment. Computer engineering major Brian Stein says the MBA he earned from Carnegie Mellon University led to a senior associate's position and a 15 percent raise in salary at the DiamondCluster International consultancy, while computer programmer Bonny Berger primarily advertises her accounting and billing expertise to prospective employers nowadays. Hedin reports that services firms tend to be more impressed with actual exposure to business affairs than advanced business degrees, but picking up such experience when one is a programmer in an internal IT department can be hard, given the inclination to pigeonhole tech professionals. Another inhibiting factor is the tendency for workers in the business and IT fields to harbor conflicting attitudes. Despite the hiring spurt from services companies, there has been a general decline in demand for U.S. IT workers, and further job cuts are expected.
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  • "Expand Programming Skills or Lose Your Job, Consultant Warns"
    EE Times (09/14/04); Wirbel, Loring

    Engineers and programmers could reduce the chances of losing their jobs to outsourcing by learning new programming skills and languages, advised Dan Saks today in his keynote speech at the Embedded Systems Conference. Strategies engineers and programmers could employ include seeking jobs where tasks are fundamental to the overall project, or looking for work where one can directly access secret or confidential data that cannot be migrated overseas. Demonstrating how indispensable one is in a specific embedded field is also advantageous, Saks noted, citing aerospace industry studies showing that the productivity ratio between the most efficient and least efficient programmers is 200 to 1. Suggestions Saks offered for embedded programming professionals included learning less popular languages, which could yield insight on what can be done with more mainstream languages, as well as learning scripting language, although programmers must guard against lazy programming through constant vigilance. Saks downplayed the offshoring threat, explaining that overall cost advantages are closer to two to three times those for hiring U.S.-based engineers and programmers, rather than five to 10 times, as offshoring advocates often claim. He further cited estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that only 2 percent of all U.S. job losses were attributable to outsourcing, while relocation within the country was responsible for 4 percent.
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  • "File-Sharing Leaps From Internet to Cellphones"
    New Scientist (09/14/04); Knight, Will

    Researchers at the Nokia Research Center in Budapest have developed a peer-to-peer (P2P)-based mobile file-sharing network that was tested on 6600 model cellular phones. The prototype system functions on phones that link to GPRS networks, which are set up to make staying online inexpensive by charging users for the data they send and receive rather than the amount of time they are connected. However, the Nokia team had to address the fact that the network boasts less resilience than the Internet, while cell phones offer less functionality than standard Internet-linked PCs. The team collaborated with researchers at Budapest University of Technology and Economics to devise a cell phone network simulator to mimic the operation of different kinds of P2P networks: The starting point was an optimized network architecture in which users are split up into clusters to boost efficiency, with each member retaining a list of the files stored within their cluster so they can respond to outside inquiries on the entire cluster's behalf; several user-to-user and cluster-to-cluster communication schemes were then tested, after which the "deterministic ring" scheme was selected as the optimal choice because of its ability to combine network resilience with rapid searching. Though the Nokia network is currently used to share text and images, Nokia researcher Lorant Farkas says the team plans to upgrade future versions with the ability to share digital music compressed in MP3 and similar formats. P2P programmer Adam Langley thinks digital content copyright holders such as music and film industries will oppose mobile file-sharing in the same way they oppose traditional file-sharing.
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  • "Nevada's E-Vote Free of Serious Problems"
    Associated Press (09/13/04); Konrad, Rachel

    Nevada's e-voting program could serve as a model for other U.S. states, given the low incidence of problems that cropped up during the Sept. 7 primary. Although the election was not bug-free--power outages, damaged hardware, and glitchy software did cause data to be lost and results delayed--these problems were minor compared with malfunctions and voter disenfranchisement elsewhere. A representative of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reported that the Nevada election was proof that e-voting machines can run efficiently and at the same time produce a paper trail to ensure the accuracy of the vote count. Nevada's $9.3 million deployment set up over 2,600 computers and printers in each county, while the poll workers were especially well-trained. These volunteer workers were in ample supply thanks to the state's retiree population, and there was plenty of time for them to assist confused voters or replace malfunctioning equipment because many had already voted via absentee ballot or special polls. Other U.S. states may not be as advantaged, and many registrars are against paper ballots on the grounds that printers are susceptible to jamming and too complex for poll workers, while buying the ink and paper the printers require cancels paperless e-voting systems' chief cost benefits. Paperless touch-screen machines will be employed by up to 50 million Americans this November, despite critics' concerns that hacking, technical problems, and other factors in just a few counties could have major ramifications in a close race. Feinstein is co-sponsoring a bill requiring all voting machines throughout the United States to produce a paper trail by July 2006.
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    For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm

  • "Wireless Gets Up Close"
    Technology Review (09/14/04); Brown, Eric S.

    Consumer electronics heavies Sony and Philips have developed a new close-range wireless technology they hope will become the foundation for a number of authentication and electronic wallet applications. The Near Field Communications (NFC) standard is based on radio-frequency identification and uses the same radio frequency and inductive electromagnetic coupling techniques, but only transmits data over 10 centimeters instead of up to five meters; this proximity requirement makes NFC more secure against hackers with wireless sniffing equipment, and has already attracted the interest of mobile phone vendors Samsung and Nokia, which will incorporate NFC into upcoming designs. Mobile phone users would be able to more easily set up communications sessions with other NFC-equipped devices than they can with Bluetooth, which requires complex back-and-forth queries. NFC devices can either be passive or active, and transmit up to 424 kilobits of data per second while using a very small amount of power. Equipped with an encryption chip, NFC phones or smart cards could be used to make vending machine purchases or to authenticate purchases on TVs, such as those from Philips and Sony, that will be similarly NFC-equipped. The standard's NFC Forum has enlisted Visa, which already sells hundreds of millions of smart cards and is well-positioned to introduce a new contactless smart card technology. NFC designers also see the standard as a initiation protocol that sets up higher-bandwidth Wi-Fi sessions, for example. Philips is pursuing public advertising applications, where people can swipe their mobile phones near subway billboards and connect to a Web site or download some short audio clip, for example.
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  • "OpenBSD's Theo de Raadt Talks Software Security"
    Computerworld Australia (09/10/04); Gedda, Rodney

    OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt says the vast majority of software security holes are due to low-level programming errors that are copied and spread throughout many different applications. He says programming errors occur when the code author misuses program functions in seemingly insignificant ways, and these mistakes slip by and get propagated as those portions of code are re-used, until billions of lines of open and closed source code are riddled with potential security vulnerabilities, as is the case today. De Raadt explains that it is impossible to root out all of the vulnerabilities, and that there is basically nothing that can stop hackers from finding and trying to exploit those flaws. The approach de Raadt advocates is making the environment difficult for the hacker to understand, so that even after they have found the bug, they do not know how to use it to obtain the needed system privileges. Software vendors must boost security audits, improve education, and incorporate basic technologies that can thwart hacks in general, de Raadt says. He claims that some Linux variations are using strange-environment defense approaches similar to OpenBSD, and there are even some Unix users who disguise their systems to look like OpenBSD machines in order to discourage targeted hack attacks. Adopting OpenBSD is not a solution to security problems, however, since most hackers are targeting the Internet at large and building up spam or denial-of-service capabilities that threaten even securely coded systems. De Raadt is especially critical of Microsoft, which he says will probably always be vulnerable to security flaws because of integration with a bug-riddled Web client.
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  • "Wireless Care for Elderly and Disabled People"
    IST Results (09/15/04)

    Giving elderly and disabled people the means to contact carers in case of emergency while allowing carers to constantly know where their patients are is the reason behind LOCOMOTION, an IST project that combines global positioning system (GPS) technology with standard mobile phones. The GPS provides accuracy to about 50 meters depending on where the user is, enabling carers to precisely pinpoint users' location if they get in trouble; project coordinator Antonio Linares Torres at Indra Sistemas in Spain notes that LOCOMOTION facilitates rapid user location and response to emergencies. "LOCOMOTION offers users greater independence and mobility by helping the elderly and people who suffer memory loss overcome their fear of leaving the house and becoming lost," he asserts. Carers can remotely monitor patients via a call center that manages interaction with users' handhelds through software that features automatic calling capabilities to periodically check up on users' status. The call center's infrastructure requirements are low because the application is Web-based, while the mobile devices themselves need little modification, which contributes to LOCOMOTION's cost-effectiveness. The system can also establish "safety zones" specific to individual users, and alert the call center when users go outside those areas. Perhaps the most critical detail of LOCOMOTION is its ease of use: The system is currently deployed in two prototypes, one of which is a standard phone equipped with location awareness, while the other is a mobile tracking device that puts users in touch with the call center.
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  • "Women Make Inroads in Video Game Industry"
    Associated Press (09/10/04); Slagle, Matt

    Peter Raad with Southern Methodist University's Guildhall school of video game making estimates that women comprise less than 10 percent of all game developers, and says that it would be in the gaming industry's best interest to bring in more female developers. People such as Laura Fryer, director of Microsoft's Advanced Technology Group, think more women could be attracted to video game development through education, particularly by spreading awareness among women that game making is a multidisciplinary enterprise that does not necessarily require programming skills. The motivation behind the inaugural Women's Game Conference in Austin, Texas, is to challenge some of the long-held assumptions that video games are primarily attractive to and designed by male "geeks," while Guildhall has teamed up with the game review Web site WomenGamers.com and the online female job recruiting site Mary-Margaret.com to set up a video game scholarship for women, believed to be the first in the nation. Fryer contends that the lack of women game developers has led to general ignorance of half the U.S. population's opinions on game content. Many people agree that there is a demand for less violent, story-driven games with more female lead characters, while the Entertainment Software Association estimates that women account for about 40 percent of gamers. WomenGamers.com co-founder Ismini Roby notes that women are stereotypically perceived as preferential to simple puzzles or card games.
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  • "On the Sunny Side of Life?"
    Telepolis (08/22/04); Schmidt, Henrieke

    Internet researchers from about 30 countries gathered in Karlstad, Sweden, to debate the disparities, potential clashes, and cultural inconsistencies in cyberspace at the fourth conference on Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication. A major focus was on the origins of the relationship between culture and technology, and an overview of cultural delineations by Minna Kamppura and Markku Tukiainen demonstrated a profound lack of sufficient abstractions; the majority of the presented papers addressed "culture" as an aggregation of national and ethnic characteristics. Chinese researcher Wei Lu illustrated a divergence from linear explanatory models with a "new model of technological evolution" designed to harmonize technological and cultural determinism via reciprocal interaction. Numerous presentations concentrated on the historically and culturally outlined particulars of ICT adoption in Russia, Estonia, and the States of Middle Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while other papers probed how traditional behavioral patterns have impacted the political usage of the Internet in Japan and the situations leading to South American and African ICT applications. In one session, a participant warned of a potential reversion to cultural essentialism if the study of ICT behavior patterns was too narrowly targeted on an isolated analysis of national or ethnic groups. Other areas of discussion included the access and usage of ICT by indigenous peoples and what impact gender has on ICT usage; these issues prompted investigation into the validity of the Internet's role as a dominant technology for buttressing social discrimination. Alternative types of Internet usage by cultures characterized as unserved or marginalized were of special interest. One presentation noted that the lack of correlation between individual ICT usage and economic conditions or cultural behavior patterns in places such as India or South America illustrates the potential inventiveness of these alternative solutions.
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  • "Coming to a Dashboard Near You"
    Business Week (09/14/04); Salkever, Alex

    Automakers are trying to simplify the features and control systems in cars, as they move from mechanical to digital systems; many of these improvements are targeted at older drivers who are not used to digital instrument panels and other computer technology. But experts say the ease-of-use features being built for older drivers will also prove useful for younger drivers as well. Many car consoles now resemble fighter jet cockpits with the number of controls available, for increasingly complex systems such as individual climate control or MP3-enabled stereos. BMW's iDrive system was one of the early attempts to simplify vehicle controls, but has met with some criticism that the system is too difficult to learn and could distract drivers from the road. BMW maintains that the iDrive is helpful, but acknowledges users need to first familiarize themselves with its operation. BMW has also pioneered digital driving controls, and includes an electronic steering system with its 2003 5-series cars, although with a parallel mechanical system required by U.S. safety regulations. Digital driving controls would have to simulate road conditions to allow drivers the same tactile connection with the road, such as the looseness and shaking of the wheel when driving over slippery surfaces. Speech recognition and tactile feedback communication technologies are also advancing for car controls, chiefly because they allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Experts say such advanced systems won't appear in higher-end cars for at least several more years, while it could be a decade before lower-end cars get the technology.
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  • "Engineer Builds Robot That Walks on Water"
    Associated Press (09/10/04); Crissey, Mike

    A team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers led by NanoRobotics Lab director Metin Sitti has created a prototype robot that can skim across water by mimicking the actions of water striders and similar insects. The machine, which cost about $10 in materials to build and weighs about a gram, consists of a body fashioned from carbon fibers, eight 2-inch steel-wire legs clad in a water-repelling plastic, and a trio of wire-driven, flat-plate piezoelectric actuators controlled by circuits linked to a power supply. Two of its legs serve as propulsion units that move like oars, allowing the machine to skim backwards and forwards, and Sitti thinks a more sophisticated device could be constructed in half a year. Of critical importance to Sitti's prototype was breakthrough research by MIT mathematician John M.W. Bush and two graduate students, who worked out the mechanism water striders use to skim over the water by filming the insects in water saturated with dye and particles. The experiment revealed that water striders press down on the surface of the water with enough force to create valleys without breaking the surface, causing the water to bounce like a trampoline and impel the insects forward. Sitti's machine illustrates the progress robotics has made thanks to the emergence of stronger and lighter materials. Sitti says, "I think it is the final challenge of microrobotics if you can make this thing;" the robot has no battery, sensors, or a brain.
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  • "'Google-Mania' Ignites Search Technology"
    Network World (09/13/04) Vol. 21, No. 37, P. 25; Bednarz, Ann

    Google's recent IPO highlights the increasing popularity of search technology: Enterprises are eager to use new search tools to help them leverage latent and incoming information, and are looking for a single search platform from which to launch searches into both structured and unstructured data. Though the previous generation of search technology--such as that from Internet darlings Lycos, Excite, and Infoseek--was focused on the Web, companies are now looking for more nuanced approaches that work with multiple data repositories. Many of these next-generation search products incorporate artificial intelligence and natural language processing technologies, or automatically create taxonomies that help organize data. World Wildlife Fund CIO Gregory Smith says his organization needed a new search tool that was able to incorporate dynamic content from the group's newly re-designed Web site, while AMR Research required some other method of discerning relevancy besides keyword matches. Because so many of AMR's documents contain similar buzzwords, CTO Scott Lundstrom chose search software that employs pattern-matching to understand meanings. Verity's Andrew Feit notes that one of the key differences between Web and enterprise search technologies is the use of relevancy metrics. Although popularity is a good measure of relevancy on the Internet, corporate intranet documents are often guarded by different layers of accessibility that may hide needed results if measured by popularity. National Semiconductor uses Google's enterprise search appliance for its intranet searches, but depends on a more customizable tool from iPhrase for its Web site, which it uses as the core search technology behind 10 different search interfaces.
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  • "World Looks to Reap IT Benefits"
    Federal Computer Week (09/13/04) Vol. 18, No. 32, P. 56; Lisagor, Megan

    The global potential of information technology will be a key topic of discussion at the semiannual meeting of the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) scheduled for late September in South Africa. Recently recruited WITSA members such as Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are an indication that IT is rapidly penetrating developing nations, alliance officials note. Harris Miller, President of WITSA and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), says that consortium officials will ponder how more countries can reap the rewards of IT "in a positive but nonregulatory manner." Establishing a basic infrastructure in developing countries is critical, according to Michel Laguerre, director of the Center for Globalization and IT at the University of California, Berkeley; the lack of electricity in many nations is a major hindrance to the spread of IT, but Laguerre says sufficient provision of electric power, computers, and training should open up IT's benefits, particularly in the area of education. Miller explains that offshore outsourcing of U.S. jobs is not a major concern among WITSA members, who are more interested in how IT can be applied to areas such as commerce, health, and training. Laguerre cautions that the capitalization of IT in developing nations cannot be realized without investment. WITSA executive director Allen Miller says the South African meeting will emphasize the consortium's legislative plan for next year, with Internet governance and security among the key issues. "It's an opportunity for people to get together [and] work out any differences we may have globally on IT and to share and learn," he explains.
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  • "Data Presentation: Tapping the Power of Visual Perception"
    Intelligent Enterprise (09/04/04) Vol. 7, No. 13, P. 33; Few, Stephen

    The mechanics of visual perception must be understood in order to effectively and efficiently present data, and key to that understanding is a clear determination of what does and does not work, and why. In his book, "Information Visualization: Perception for Design," Colin Ware explains that comprehending perception allows knowledge to be converted into rules for displaying information--rules that, when followed, will facilitate a data presentation highlighting critical and revealing patterns. In anatomical terms, visual perception is the penetration of reflected or emitted light through the pupil of the eye onto the retina, where monochromatic rods and color-sensitive cones translate the detection of objects into signals relayed via the optic nerve to the brain, where they sorted into iconic, short-term, or long-term memory. Short-term memory can hold no more than seven chunks of data at a time, a fact that data presentation designers must consider: A person will be unable to perceive a graph as a whole if there are more than seven data components, while five is the recommended limit. There are two fundamental modes of perception--"preattentive" processing of basic visual attributes such as shape and color, which is done in parallel; and conscious, "attentive" processing that occurs serially and is therefore slower. Data that readers can perceive instantly and easily should be visually encoded using preattentive attributes, while attentive attributes should be employed to encode data that is distinctive from the rest. Visual data displays often use preattentive attributes such as hue, size, 2D location, orientation, line width, shape, curvature, color intensity, enclosure, and added marks, but only two attributes--2D location and line length--can accurately encode quantitative values. Non-quantitative attributes are used to reflect categorical distinctions, and the strength of those distinctions varies with each attribute.
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  • "The New Rules"
    Software Development (09/04) Vol. 12, No. 9, P. 83; Ambler, Scott W.

    Scott Ambler, author of "Agile Database Techniques," writes that data professionals should follow the example of software developers and adopt an agile, evolutionary approach to data modeling. The serial nature of data professionals' traditional development model makes updating the model complicated and time-consuming. Ambler advocates starting out with a High-Level Domain Model that outlines fundamental business entities and charts their interconnecting relationships; the model can then direct professionals' detailed class and data modeling initiatives during every iteration, lessening the likelihood that work will be wasted. Ambler recommends that data professionals employ the principles and practices of Agile Modeling, which support incremental development followed by testing with actual software. Through an agile approach, data professionals will quickly learn that their data skills are not constantly needed, and will have to assist with non-data activities. Ambler's advice is to learn how to build multiple models and apply the appropriate artifact, model with others to share information and skills, and support the participation of stakeholders. He describes database refactoring as essential, and doing so safely requires regression testing. Steps data professionals can take to successfully adopt evolutionary approaches include realistically perceiving implementation, improving data migration abilities, and discovering new ways to address data management issues.
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  • "Crashproof Code"
    IEEE Spectrum (09/04) Vol. 41, No. 9; Hess, Ronald K.; Bass, David I.; Baca, John B.

    Glitchy flight control software can make the difference between life and death for pilots flying supersonic planes, and research teams at Boeing and NASA must deal with the added difficulty of experimental active aeroelastic wing (AAW) technology, which could potentially yield more maneuverable and fuel-efficient aircraft. The first phase of the AAW project involved outfitting an F/A-18 jet with flexible wings, whose performance during incremental in-flight twisting was monitored via strain gauges in 50 test flights; the resulting data was used to develop the software needed to safely maneuver the jet with the wings--specifically, by updating the plane's original aerodynamics and structural loads databases in order to devise the control laws underlying the flight software. The software must work in real time without exception, so the developers inserted a hardware timer that forces the flight computer to move on to the next step on the to-do list every 6.5 milliseconds. A gain schedule was also incorporated to ensure that tasks do not deplete their processor time before achieving results by replacing complex algorithms with simplified linear calculations based on empirical data. The control laws the software is based on subscribe to nonlinear formulas to ascertain the optimum positions of the plane's control surfaces in response to pilot commands across all possible flight conditions, but the software cannot accommodate those formulas and still operate in real time. So the developers employed MATRIXx control design and simulation software to partition the spectrum of possible flight conditions into different regions. MATRIXx automatically converted the mathematical interpretation of the gain schedule into Ada source code to remove the potential for errors cropping up "in translation." The project's second phase, slated for September, will test the AAW wings when they are used to actually control the aircraft's flight, provided the developers are confident enough in the software's reliability.
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