Software Anomaly

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2004-03-08 Print this article Print

A software glitch was cited in a Dec. 11, 2000, crash of a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in which all four Marines on board were killed. According to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Martin Berndt, who presented the finding from a Judge Advocate General investigation, "the mishap resulted from a hydraulic-system failure compounded by a computer-software anomaly."

A hydraulic line broke in one of the crafts two engine casings as the pods were being moved from airplane mode to helicopter mode in preparation for landing. When the flight-control computer realized the problem, it stopped the rotation of the engine pods. The pilots, trained to respond, tried to reset the pods by pressing the primary reset button, but the finding stated that a glitch caused "significant pitch and thrust changes in both prop rotors," which led to a stall. The plane crashed in a marsh.

The craft is made by a partnership of Boeing and Bell Helicopter. A Boeing spokesman said changes were made in the software but referred requests for details about the software anomaly to the government.

A spokesman for the Navys Air Systems Command, which investigated the incident, confirmed the software problem, but was not able to provide additional details.

Nor are these incidents likely to be the last.

In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees medical-device software, said of 3,140 medical-device recalls conducted between 1992 and 1998, 242, or 7.7 percent, were attributed to software failures. The FDA also says the number of software-related recalls may be underreported because its often hard to determine the exact cause of a problem in the immediate aftermath of an accident.

Theres a financial cost to all organizations that use badly designed and deployed software as well. Poor-quality software costs U.S. businesses $59.9 billion annually, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Commerce Departments National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). The NIST study looked not just at the cost of finding and fixing software problems, but also at costs incurred from lost retail transactions and manufacturing product delays.

Those losses are likely to mount as complex software programs are tied together across networks. Think of all the various pieces of corporate data that come together in systems for customer-relationship management, supply-chain management, or enterprise resource-planning-there could be a hundred places where ERP software touches another corporate system, according to Irina Carrel, a senior manager at Mercury Interactive, a company that provides software-testing and -monitoring tools for corporations. And, because of previous bugs, computer-program anomalies or other factors, its impossible to predict what exactly will happen when two pieces of code come into contact.

"Software is the most complicated thing that the human mind can come up with and build," says Gary McGraw, the chief technology officer at Cigital, a consultancy specializing in improving software quality. "Perfection is unobtainable." (See Cigital: Bug Zappers, A Dossier, Baseline, March 2004)

Want the story latest news in programming environments and developer tools? Check out eWEEKs Developer Center at

Next Page: Expert predicts an increase in software-driven medical device problems.


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