A NATEP project launched just three years ago has already had a significant impact on its UK lead partner, leading to export business that promises to keep growing.
As aircraft become more complex, so too do the systems they depend on for safe, reliable operations. But how can engineers be sure the platform’s embedded hardware will allow their software to function as designed?
Enter the Airborne Software Capacity (ASC) project. As its name suggests, this NATEP-supported research and development (R&D) work set out to boost the capacity of safety-critical embedded systems so they can execute the increasing amount of software used to control modern and future avionics systems.
So successfully did it meet its objectives that 18 months after the project’s conclusion, new products and services are in the marketplace and new R&D activity is under way to accelerate the technology’s growth. It adds up to a “significant revenue stream” for Rapita Systems, the project lead.
Rapita general manager Dr Ian Broster said global aviation will be the eventual beneficiary as airlines and operators see increased functionality, lower project costs and fewer expensive hardware upgrades.
A ‘unique’ solution
The ASC project, carried out in conjunction with industrial partner Altran UK and supported by end-users Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation Systems and BAE Systems, succeeded in developing a “unique” solution to verifying the behaviour of safety-critical avionics systems running on multicore processors.
While a second thread, aimed at improvements to single-core central processing units (CPUs), also produced good results, the multicore solution has generated the most significant interest, particularly in the USA.
Multicore processors, Dr Broster explained, are “essentially where you have several CPUs on one chip.” While multicore CPUs increase performance, there are “idiosyncrasies” in how the cores impact each other when trying to utilize shared system resources such as main memory and the system bus.
These anomalies are addressed by the Certification Authorities Software Team (CAST), an international group of industry and regulatory authorities, in the CAST-32A position paper (and subsequent A(M)C 20-193 advisory circular). These documents provide supplementary objectives to DO-178C guidance specifically related to developing airworthy multicore systems.
The ASC project accelerated the path to a commercial solution that answers the challenges of these new objectives.
‘Highly specialised area
Dr Broster said multicore processor verification is a “highly specialised area, needing specialist skills.” Rapita leads the way in supporting the use of multicores in avionics, “Our software is very powerful and complex, because it has to handle the complexities of our customers’ multicore systems.
“We’re demonstrating that the software our customers have written will run fast enough and reliably enough on multicore hardware.”
Multicore CPUs are “just part of advanced control systems” that bring benefits in terms of improved avionics system capabilities, processing power, reduced pilot workload, lighter airframes, fuel efficiencies and more.
Having achieved TRL 6-7 with ASC, Rapita made the push to commercialisation with a follow-on project called Multicore Analysis Service and Tools for Embedded Critical Systems (MASTECS), which received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
CAST-32A compliance solution
MASTECS “took the ASC technology and developed it much further,” said Dr Broster. The technology is now incorporated into the CAST-32A compliance solution marketed by Rapita.
The company, part of Danlaw Inc of the USA, was founded in 2004 and its standalone UK operation has a workforce of about 50 which increased by three as a result of the NATEP project.
Rapita prides itself on a leading position in the area of supporting multicore hardware in complex platforms, where it delivers services from selection through to certification. It’s a process that “can easily cost more than $10m,” in the words of published report by Collins Aerospace.
Dr Broster said: “We have technology that’s ahead of the industry. People are finding it’s significantly cheaper – and the quality is higher – if they contract us to do this work rather than trying to reinvent this technology themselves and take it through to certification.”
Reviewing progress over the last three years, he said NATEP was “instrumental in accelerating the research” that built the software.