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Aerospace Blog

The Aerospace Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about aeronautics, astronautics, fixed-wing aircraft, future space travel, satellites, NASA, and much more.

Implications of the Hacked Airliner

Posted May 20, 2015 9:54 AM by HUSH

I'm not sure if anyone around CR4 is a fan of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, but it might be worth your time. The show has occasionally run afoul of true tech industry insiders because of programming inaccuracies (for example, 9 times F in hexadecimal is 87, not fleventy-five). However, the show is definitely funny and offers humorous insight into the Palo Alto-sunshine, granola-eating, tech-driven lifestyles that stereotypically pervade the Silicon Valley workforce.

Especially pertinent for this week's blog is a season 1 narrative where Jared, the operations manager, is offered a ride home in an autonomous car. Mid-transit, the car overrides his destination to a man-made island in the Pacific and, well…see for yourself in the clip attached at right. (Copyright HBO via YouTube, of course.)

Most media coverage on autonomous cars also includes mention of their work-in-progress flaws, especially how unproven the technology is. Of course that leads to the hacking narrative, which I feel was well-captured by an Engineering360 feature article from March. However, few articles have touched on the ability for other vehicles to be hacked. Trains have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately; did you know they've been hacked too? Last year, a team hacked into a defunct spacecraft with NASA's permission.

And not only has a passenger airline's cyber security been penetrated, but a hacker was even able to control the plane. The individual, reported as Chris Roberts, is a security analyst One World Lab in Denver. On April 15, he posted to Twitter saying he had commandeered an engine on the plane he was flying in and took control of one of the engines. FBI agents met him when his plane touched down in Syracuse, N.Y., and agents found evidence he had tampered with the electronic seat box (found under many airplane seats) from a plane he had been on earlier in the day.

Apparently Roberts told the FBI he had hacked into airplanes 15-20 times previously, but never took him seriously enough. So on his flight in April, he caused just enough of a disturbance to highlight this huge security threat. Roberts said he was able to access the in-flight entertainment systems via hard-linking to the electronic seat box. With some default passwords and coding, he was able to monitor communications from the cockpit to the engines, and was also able to engage one of the engines in climb mode, which ultimately banked to plane to the side as it flew.

More than anything, this speaks to the immense negligence on several parties that led to this. Plane manufacturers need to institute better network architecture and hardware failsafes. Plane operators need to change passwords from defaults. Police agencies need to heed the caution of white hat hackers whenever their expertise is available. These are the lessons learned from more than 25 years of internet connectivity, and the fact they haven't been applied beyond the realm of computing is ridiculous.

I suppose the situation is similar to plane crashes vs. auto crashes. You're immensely more likely to get in the latter, but it seems most people worry about the former much more. Perhaps this incident will jumpstart awareness about universal cyber threats, not those for just computers and cars.

Roberts has been forbidden from doing press or providing more definitive details about how he hacked a plane. (That's never a good sign.) With any hope white hat hackers will become as prevalent as programmers, in Silicon Valley and in the skies.

30 comments; last comment on 05/24/2015
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Circling the Globe on Solar Power

Posted April 23, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

Watching a night landing may not be very exciting, until one realizes the plane is solar-powered. The Solar Impulse 2 departed United Arab Emirates for Muscat, Oman, on March 9, 2015 to start its round-the-world journey. The successor to the smaller original Swiss-made Solar Impulse which logged a 26-hour flight in 2010, the new carbon-fiber aircraft travels at 50-100 km/hour (30-60 mph). The 72-m (236 ft) wings are fitted with more than 17,000 solar cells; lithium polymer batteries and four brushless motors round out the energy system. Follow the status of the flight, batteries, and solar cells in real time at Solar Impulse Cockpit.


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3 comments; last comment on 05/21/2015
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Air Force One Upgrade

Posted April 19, 2015 12:00 AM by joeymac

It's looking like the Air Force is going to give Air Force One an upgrade. The Air Force currently uses the Boeing 747-200 aircraft as Air Force One. There are currently two of these aircraft being used as Air Force One and these two planes are the only ones left in the United States that are still flying. These 25-year-old aircraft are getting older, and the Air Force believes it's now time for an upgrade with a new generation of planes. The Air Force claims that it costs more time and money to keep the current aircraft flying, which is another reason they believe it's time for an upgrade: saved money in the long run.

The Air Force announced that it wants to use Boeing's 747-8 airframe. This long range, wide body aircraft is made in Everett, Washington. It has a longer fuselage, greater wing span and new engines and avionics. These planes will be heavily modified with the latest technology and security equipment. The military's request to Congress this year alone was for $102 million and may jump up to $3 billion in total in the next five years, and this is not counting the final three years of the project. The Air Force is planning on buying up to three of these airplanes. This depends on the ability of having two airplanes available for the president at any one time. The Air Force is hoping to sign the first contract with Boeing later on this year with the goal of having the new 747s flying the President eight years from now in 2023.

There are a couple of things that make me wonder if this is necessary. The article says that by changing the type of plane being used will save more money in the long run than the cost to buy and upgrade the new planes. If that's the case where are the numbers backing that up? How much money is being saved by changing planes? Another position is that the aircraft are 25 years old but they don't have nearly as many hours logged on them than commercial use aircraft. Realistically how many more years of service can we get out of the existing Air Force One aircraft? These are some questions that I'd like to see get answered before we, the American taxpayers have to pay for more government spending.

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18 comments; last comment on 05/23/2015
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Aerospace Engineering: What to Expect in 2050

Posted April 16, 2015 12:00 AM by CR4 Guest Author

What will the world of tomorrow look like? Some of us reading this may be alive in 2050, whereas others won't. Either way, the inevitable reality of changing technology is fascinating to think about. We already know some of the developmental plans aerospace companies have. Flying cars, hybrid vehicles, larger jets, and rockets that can fly as far as Mars are already in the works.

One interesting improvement will be the increasing importance of software in aerospace rather than hardware. Even a Boeing 787 is 50% software in price breakdown. Software is what keeps the vehicle control steady, how a plane talks to ground control, and how it interacts with other vessels.

Another trend will be that of vessel to vessel communication. Planes in the air will get to have more communication with other planes and land-based vehicles. Drones can also be made to swarm together for surveillance missions. This artificial intelligence will help to avoid collisions and keep flights safer.

Scramjets are Supersonic Combustion Ramjet Engines that allow for supersonic airflow through the engine's combustion chamber. Simply put, this means that flights that ordinarily take 17 hours can be accelerated to perhaps a couple of hours. Imagine flying from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles in just a couple of hours, versus an entire day. These jets can go twice as fast as the Concorde jet, and that's with today's technology. The limits on this technology would be Mach 15, though scramjets are considerably less. The reason for their high efficiency is because of hypersonic velocity, which doesn't require wings-just lift.

Of course, even these concepts are secondary compared to studies of electrical flying, a prediction for 2050 and beyond. Aircraft will have different shapes, since the old propulsion system will no longer be necessary. There will also be smaller but more powerful computers onboard, which will operate at a capacity beyond the human brains. The main reason for electrical operations is a response to a predicted increase in air traffic. With great traffic comes a greater threat of greenhouse gas emissions. Organized efforts to discover earth-friendly technologies will lead us to superior products and processes, such as green power stations with zero harmful emissions.

At the current pace, lithium-ion batteries are able to reach 300Wh/kg, and if we can develop 400Wh/kg in the coming years, electrical planes would be feasible. In fact, some predict that with changing technologies and a world shift in the way we work, traditional jet fuel will become more expensive by the year 2050, giving further reason to put trust in electrical flight.

All of these developments are predicted to happen by 2050 or within that approximate time range. How will this affect our world-which by then may be different economically anyway? Time will tell. Whatever happens, here's hoping we'll be there to see it! And more importantly, we hope that our children and their children will take responsible steps to produce technology that serves to heal the environment ensuring our species' long-term survival.

scramjet diagram

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Amphibious Jumbo Aircraft Undergoes Initial Testing

Posted April 15, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

If you're building a huge aircraft that can take off and land on both land and water and remain aloft for long periods, it had better work. The engines for this craft, slated for flight demonstrations sometime next year, are undergoing their first round of testing in the U.K. Results of the tests will likely produce recommendations for improvements before the first flight. The helium-infused craft will carry four engines - two up front and two in the rear, carry up to 20,000 lbs of passengers and cargo, and remain aloft as long as five days.


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3 comments; last comment on 04/16/2015
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Drone Delivery is Still a Thing

Posted April 08, 2015 1:13 PM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: delivery drone UAV

I kind of thought we were over this drone delivery concept. In 2013, big name companies promised to revolutionize home delivery with the deployment of delivery drones. Amazon could fulfill orders in the same day for right-sized products. A Dominos pizza flew straight from the oven to your front door. Other enterprising individuals used them to smuggle drugs into a prison.

The suspected hazards from widespread drone delivery use are clear. How do we ensure civilian safety while cargo-carrying drones buzz overhead? How does the drone land for a delivery with four dangerous rotors? How does airspace become regulated on the delivery drone scale? What happens to a drone that breaks down in midair? Will people accept the constant buzzing of quadcopters carrying who-knows-what over their houses? Are they the most efficient use of resources for delivering irrelevant commodities? Will people steal drones to harvest parts and scrap metal, or redirect them to steal cargo?

Despite these problems, some of which ultimately led to the FAA banning the use drones (for now) for Amazon delivery, the concept won't go away. Some non-profit organizations continue to investigate how feasible UAV delivery could be for their operations. The United Arab Emirates needs to spend its oil money somewhere, so high-tech drones with biometric analyses will deliver drivers licenses, passports, and other documents to citizens in an official capacity. In the Netherlands, a drone-based defibrillator can be flown to remote patients. After it lands, users can fold away the rotors and carry the drone to the patient. A camera, microphone and speaker allow the doctor or paramedic to instruct how the defibrillator should be used.

At the same time businesses are upgrading their technology to alleviate some of the issues that plagued the first waves of drone delivery. Google has developed Google Wing, a drone aircraft that lowers packages to the ground via winch. This decreases the chance for injury to a person as well as damage to the UAV. At the same time, Matternet, a company which claims to be the most advanced of drone manufacturers and operators, promises a drone that adapts to changing conditions with a network of support stations every 20 miles to ensure drone maintenance and minimizes the chance for lost packages. Matternet also hopes to make direct package delivery available to everyone via smartphone apps.

Because of the rapidly changing state of drone delivery safety and the clear benefits they can offer, the FAA has allowed such small-scale drones, but with crippling rules: the drone is less than 55 lb., flies lower than 200 feet, stays far away from airports and heliports, and never leaves the line-of-sight of the pilot. Obviously it's the last contingency that makes delivery drones useless, but the FAA has at least shown the awareness that they can't keep delivery drones grounded forever.

The future of drone delivery could be this: you're hustling along, trying to catch the 8:20 a.m. subway to midtown, but the caffeine crunch has hit. Pull out the phone, order a cup of coffee, and hear the buzz of a drone creeping up. It has delivered a warm cup of coffee from the café down the street in minutes. This is as close to teleportation as we may ever get.

5 comments; last comment on 04/10/2015
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