Many people worry about planes crashing. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, fear of flying, usually called aviophobia, affects 6.5 percent of the population, which amounts to 20 million people. Other estimates are even higher, if you include people who feel some level of nervousness or disease while flying.
1,104 airline accidents have occurred between 1960 and 2016. While the trend over this period has been a reduction of fatal accidents, as airline safety has been prioritized, there has been a recent uptick in accidents over the last few years. Errors in airplane computer systems are one potential causes of such accidents. The most recent technologies used in planes is more vulnerable to such errors. These technologies are more prone to errors caused by high-energy neutrons, which stream through our atmosphere. These neutrons can cause computer errors known as single-event upsets. Although these upsets do not result in permanent damage, they can crash computer applications vital to operating the aircraft.
Unfortunately, there is no practical way to shield airplanes, and importantly critical equipment with applications that can crash, from these particles. What’s more, the rates of these single-event upsets drastically increase as planes ascend higher into the atmosphere. For example, at just 30,000 feet, the intensity and rate of these errors increase 300 fold compared to ground-level.
Most planes fly at around 40,000 feet, and long flights are typically assigned even higher altitudes.
Here is one examples of how single-event upset can cause planes to crash. “On October 7, 2008, an Airbus A330-303 operated by Qantas Airways was en route from Perth to Singapore. At 37,000 feet, one of the plane’s three air data inertial reference units had a failure, causing incorrect data to be sent to the plane’s flight control systems. This caused the plane to suddenly and severely pitch down, throwing unrestrained occupants to the plane’s ceiling. At least 110 of the 303 passengers and 9 of the 12 crew members were injured. The injuries of 12 of the occupants were serious, and another 39 occupants required treatment at a hospital. An SEU was the only potential cause for the malfunctions not ruled out. All potential causes were found to be ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ except for a single-event upsets.” –ATSB Transport Safety Report Aviation Occurance Investigation AO-2008- 070 Final, Cited from https://www.lanl.gov/science/NSS/issue1_2012/story4full.shtml
While there is, possibly, more reason to worry when flying now that technology in airplanes are more vulnerable to such errors, developers are working on mitigation strategies. While it is expensive to create the technology and then test its vulnerability before using it in such important applications, engineers typically have to use this process to ensure the resilience of technology against single-event upsets. Lucid Circuit’s RSAP technology offers a more efficient solution to test technology for susceptibility to single-event upsets. Read more about RSAP on our website.