Don-Nolan-Proxmire Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1983


July 1, 1996

John Bluck Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA (Phone: 415/604-5026)

RELEASE: 96-126 NEW SOFTWARE HELPS DAMAGED AIRPLANES LAND SAFELY Airplanes that suffer major equipment failures or explosions will be able to land safely using new software jointly developed by scientists at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA and McDonnell Douglas Corp., St. Louis, MO. In less than a second, the damaged aircraftÕs computer will be able to ÒrelearnÓ to fly the plane using special neural net software. Grave problems such as partially destroyed wings, fuselage holes and sensor failures greatly alter how an airplane handles, and pilotsÕ controls may not work or might respond oddly, according to NASA aerospace engineers. ÒOnce we prove neural net software can rapidly learn to fly a crippled jet fighter and help pilots land it safely, then engineers will be more likely to use the intelligent software in power plants, automobiles and other less complicated systems to avoid disasters after equipment failures,Ó said NASA Ames computer scientist Charles Jorgensen. Jorgensen is the principal investigator for the fouryear Intelligent Flight Control Program at Ames. Preliminary flight tests are underway at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, using early versions of the new software installed in a modified F-15 jet fighter. Simple neural net software that can ÒlearnÓ has been used since the 1960s with computer modems which enables them to receive error-free data over noisy telephone lines, according to Jorgensen. ÒNeural net software learns by

observing patterns in the real world and learning to do different tasks in response to different patterns,Ó Jorgensen said. -more-2Airplane sensors can send speed, direction and force data to the computer program. The aircraftÕs computer compares the pattern of what is actually happening to the aircraft with a pattern showing how the airplane should fly. If there is a mismatch, the computer software, which contains a dozen basic aeronautical equations, or rules that define how airplanes fly, makes the system work with a new pattern, if it is feasible. ÒIf sensor data show that a rule is being violated, and the airplane is turning too abruptly, the airplaneÕs neural network can rapidly learn to assist the pilot in use of the stick, engines, flaps, rudders, and other control surfaces in ways that may be very unconventional, but possibly successful,Ó said Jorgensen. JorgensenÕs Neural Net Group at Ames is working with McDonnell Douglas aerospace engineers to develop the software and modify aircraft to enable them to recover during flight following severe damage or unexpected events. ÒWeÕre going one small step at a time, giving the neural network more and more flight control,Ó Jorgensen said. ÒWhen you have people aboard, you have to make changes incrementally because each improvement that could affect passenger safety has to be approved by DrydenÕs Air Worthiness Board and ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration. We are looking at technologies that are five to 15 years away from widespread use.Ó However, according to Jorgensen, only six days were required to demonstrate the first neural net airplane software because it was self-learning and easier to program than most kinds of software. In the projectÕs next phase, McDonnell Douglas will validate the software in a very high fidelity simulator with

all the Òbells and whistles.Ó ÒTheyÕll have F-15 test pilots fly the simulator through the full performance envelope. Then the software will go into an F-15 at Dryden, probably in 1997,Ó Jorgensen said. Later versions of the software could be used in new airplanes like a hypersonic passenger transport, he added. ÒYou may need to fly parts of those extremely fast airplanes neurally because conditions change so quickly that human pilots can not react rapidly enough to complete some tasks such as emergency engine restarts,Ó he explained. ÒWe are heading towards being able to put the software in many planes, and the computer program should rapidly learn and adjust to new aircraft,Ó Jorgensen said. ÒOf course, each aircraft has to be certified, and special hardware modifications would have to be made.Ó -endNASA press releases and other information are available automatically by sending an Internet electronic mail message to In the body of the message (not the subject line) users should type the words "subscribe pressrelease" (no quotes). The system will reply with a confirmation via E-mail of each subscription. A second automatic message will include additional information on the service. NASA releases also are available via CompuServe using the command GO NASA.