Tools Ensure Reliability of Critical Software

NASA Technology

In November 2006, after attempting to make a routine maneuver, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) reported unexpected errors. The onboard software switched to backup resources, and a 2-day lapse in communication took place between the spacecraft and Earth. When a signal was finally received, it indicated that MGS had entered safe mode, a state of restricted activity in which the computer awaits instructions from Earth. After more than 9 years of successful operation—gathering data and snapping pictures of Mars to characterize the planet’s land and weather—communication between MGS and Earth suddenly stopped.



Months later, a report from NASA’s internal review board found the spacecraft’s battery failed due to an unfortunate sequence of events. Updates to the spacecraft’s software, which had taken place months earlier, were written to the wrong memory address in the spacecraft’s computer. In short, the mission ended because of a software defect.


Over the last decade, spacecraft have become increasingly reliant on software to carry out mission operations. In fact, the next mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, will rely on more software than all earlier missions to Mars combined. According to Gerard Holzmann, manager at the Laboratory for Reliable Software (LaRS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), even the fault protection systems on a spacecraft are mostly softwarebased. For reasons like these, well-functioning software is critical for NASA.

In the same year as the failure of MGS, Holzmann presented a new approach to critical software development to help reduce risk and provide consistency. He proposed “The Power of 10: Rules for Developing Safety-Critical Code,” which is a small set of rules that can easily be remembered, clearly relate to risk, and allow compliance to be verified. The reaction at JPL was positive, and developers in the private sector embraced Holzmann’s ideas.


To demonstrate the feasibility of using a tool to automatically check software for compliance with Holzmann’s rules, JPL awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding to GrammaTech Inc. of Ithaca, New York. The software development company adapted its existing software code analysis product, CodeSonar, to include verification of The Power of 10. Michael McDougall, a senior scientist at GrammaTech, says, “JPL was already using CodeSonar to check its software; however, there are things that might be acceptable in a desktop application that are unacceptable in an environment like on Mars or the Moon. CodeSonar didn’t have rules specifically crafted for this type of critical software.” After successfully adapting CodeSonar to check for the NASAderived rules, GrammaTech transitioned the changes into its commercial version of the product in 2008.




Items as varied as infusion pumps, cell phones, and aircraft components are made using CodeSonar, a product from GrammaTech Inc. that incorporates rules developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to quickly find problems in the products’ software.

As a static analysis tool, CodeSonar finds problems in software without executing any part of the program. The tool produces a list of potential violations, including complex programming bugs that can result in system crashes and memory corruption. Compared to traditional software testing methods, CodeSonar checks more code in less time and saves time and expense by finding problems before the software is completed and distributed to users.

The design of CodeSonar allows users to configure how thoroughly it performs a check. The tool can warn about every potential issue, only critical violations, or a combination of both. McDougall explains, “Depending on the application, the software may not need to be as reliable as a Mars rover, but it can still be troublesome if it crashes at the wrong time. Users can choose the level of compliance that suits their context.”

Today, CodeSonar has hundreds of users worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies, startup businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies working on satellites, avionics, industrial controls, medical devices, wireless devices, networking equipment, and consumer electronics.

In response to a widespread medical device recall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started encouraging manufacturers of infusion pumps to utilize static code analysis tools like CodeSonar to check the pumps’ software. Commonly used to deliver fluids into a patient’s body, infusion pumps have been responsible for a number of deaths and injuries since 2005. In one instance, investigators at the FDA used CodeSonar to help determine the root cause of malfunction in a widelydeployed, commercial infusion pump.


Cell phone developers like LG Electronics Inc., Samsung, and Panasonic are also using CodeSonar. McDougall explains, “Cell phones are expected to function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The software that runs the internal cell phone, changes what is on the screen, and manages the address book, all has to be very reliable. Users do not want to have to reboot or install updates in the middle of a phone call.”

GE Aviation, a provider of jet engines and components, as well as avionics, electric power, and mechanical systems for aircraft, uses CodeSonar to ensure the software in aircraft functions properly. “Software is an important part of engine design, and a lot of how planes work is controlled by software. You want it to be perfect—or as close to perfect as possible,” says McDougall.

With public and private entities employing CodeSonar, Holzmann is hopeful that more organizations will be inspired to improve software development practice. “If the technology continues to be adopted, we will have made a contribution to making the computer systems we rely on safer and more reliable,” he says.

Since developing The Power of 10, Holzmann has devised a single coding standard called the JPL Institutional Coding Standard for the Development of Flight Software. McDougall expects the standard will be incorporated in the next commercial version of CodeSonar.

CodeSonar® is a registered trademark of GrammaTech Inc.


Electronic Handbooks Simplify Process Management

NASA Technology

Getting a multitude of people to work together to manage processes across many organizations —for example, flight projects, research, technologies, or data centers and others—is not an easy task. Just ask Dr. Barry E. Jacobs, a research computer scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. He helped NASA develop a process management solution that provided documenting tools for process developers and participants to help them quickly learn, adapt, test, and teach their views. Some of these tools included editable files for subprocess descriptions, document descriptions, role guidelines, manager worksheets, and references.



NASA’s SBIR program provides opportunities for small businesses to participate in research and development projects. The STTR program awards contracts to small businesses for cooperative research and development with a non-profit research institution, such as a university.

First utilized for NASA’s Headquarters Directives Management process, the approach led to the invention of a concept called the Electronic Handbook (EHB). This EHB concept was successfully applied to NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, among other NASA programs. Several Federal agencies showed interest in the concept, so Jacobs and his team visited these agencies to show them how their specific processes could be managed by the methodology, as well as to create mockup versions of the EHBs.



In partnership with NASA and under the guidance of Jacobs, REI Systems, a Herndon, Virginia-based small business, received a NASA SBIR award in 1989 to build an integrated, uniform, and extensible framework for storage, retrieval, and update of heterogeneous objects. REI’s solution employed the NASA-developed EHB paradigm.

Using a familiar, easy-to-learn “handbook” interface, the EHB guides each user through complicated procedures that formerly required using multiple paper documents or legacy systems. This web-based business process management system was used to automate, integrate, execute, and optimize the business processes for NASA’s SBIR and STTR programs, which receive approximately 2,500 Phase I and Phase II proposals annually.

The team worked closely with the stakeholders at every level in order to fully understand the roles and business processes involved, which helped ensure the successful functionality, efficiency, and usability of the system. The way Jacobs sees it, “To truly understand one’s universe, one must see it through multiple ‘eyes’ and also have tools to communicate these views.”

The first NASA SBIR/STTR EHB was deployed in 1996 for the Phase I Review and Selection process. Now, the NASA SBIR/STTR EHB is a complete end-to-end paperless system for management of the SBIR/STTR programs ranging from solicitation development to contract administration processes and commercialization. The EHB continues to be used by all program participants, with approximately 6,000 active users from NASA Centers and firms.

According to REI, each firm that uses the EHB system to apply to the NASA programs saves the costs associated with printing and mailing of eight paper copies. For NASA, there has been a more than 30-percent reduction in the time required for processing, with commensurate reductions in the effort to manage the paper submissions.




Originally featured in Spinoff 2001, REI has grown from a startup to a large business that provides a variety of Web-enabled, database-driven knowledge management and performance support solutions for Federal agencies, State governments, and the commercial sector. REI Systems continues to innovate with the EHB concept nurtured by NASA 22 years ago.


The company has applied the approach to managing information in every one of their custom software applications that manage the grants-making processes for Federal agencies as diverse as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice, and the Department of Energy (DOE). Specifically, REI’s NASAderived EHB model has more than 60,000 users with over $6 billion in financial transactions per year.

REI has also taken its NASA SBIR domain knowledge to other agencies—DHS’s Science and Technology, the Small Business Administration, and DOE—where it is currently developing systems for their SBIR programs. In turn, REI has leveraged its open government and dashboarding solutions for the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration (,, and USASpending. gov are some eGov sites developed by REI) and brought those solutions back to NASA to provide data visualization capabilities. Innovation with the EHB has been a two-way street.


According to REI, EHBs create a system that has lower maintenance, support, and upgrade costs, as well as reduced publication, distribution, and storage costs. An organization using an EHB will benefit from increased productivity and efficiency, enhanced communication and collaboration, enterprise-wide knowledge management, and increased data quality and accuracy. Samidha Manu, senior program manager at REI, says, “We look at what our customers’ needs are, and then we provide what makes the most sense in an automated tool. The big push is to make the process efficient, to make it work more effectively.”

REI’s largest EHBbased system supports HRSA, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, to provide competitively awarded grant funding to states and localities in providing healthcare and affiliated services to underserved communities nationwide. The EHB supports more than 300 grant programs and cooperative agreements, more than 10,000 grantees, and 1,500 HRSA employees.

Manu expresses appreciation to NASA for helping REI get to where it is today. “The tools deployed for NASA Goddard, in one form or another, have been adapted to the technology or solutions that we are deploying for other Federal agencies and doing a variety of things we probably never anticipated,” she says. “In 1998, there were hardly any Federal Internet applications to speak of. Since then, all types of Web applications have exploded.”


Home Air Purifiers Eradicate Harmful Pathogens

NASA TechnologyLettuce grown on the ISS

Mizuna lettuce growing aboard the International Space Station before being harvested and frozen for return to Earth. NASA funded the development of Ethylene scrubbers to remove the plant-produced gas from the air, which help to keep vegetables fresh in space.

In the 1990s, NASA scientists were thinking of what astronauts would need to survive long-term missions to the moon and even to other planets in the solar system. One important requirement was a dependable source of food, which could be accomplished by astronauts growing their own produce in space-age greenhouses. But cultivating crops in a sealed-off environment results in the buildup of an undesirable gas called ethylene. Plants release the odorless, colorless fume into the air, which has the unfortunate effect of accelerating decay, hastening the wilting of flowers and the ripening of fruits and vegetables.

To address the problem, the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Space Product Development Program funded the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, located at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to develop plant growth chambers that included an ethylene reduction device. In this device, called a “scrubber,” air is drawn into tubes coated with thin layers of titanium dioxide (TiO2). When an ultraviolet (UV) light source located in the tubes strikes the TiO2, the ethylene gets converted to water and carbon dioxide, both of which are beneficial for plants.

Technology TransferThe ethylene scrubber was first used in 1995 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-73, where it successfully preserved a crop of potato seedlings. Updated versions of the device were subsequently flown on several missions to the International Space Station.

While NASA’s main objective in developing the technology was to get rid of ethylene, the scrubbers were capable of purging all kinds of unwanted organic particles from the air. Recognizing its powerful air purification abilities, KES Science & Technology, based out of Kennesaw, Georgia, licensed the technology from the University of Wisconsin (Spinoff 2001 and 2002). The company then partnered with Jacksonville, Florida-based Akida Holdings, which marketed the technology as Airocide (Spinoff 2009).

In 2013, Airocide finally found its way into people’s homes when Akida Holdings adapted the technology for home use by developing an eye-catching portable unit with enough power to purge an entire room of pathogens.

The home Airocide unit made its public debut with an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show, immediately generating a great deal of attention for it. “It was a lot of fun putting that together and it was also great publicity for our product,” said Barney Freedman, who is vice president at Akida Holdings.


According to the company, Airocide is the only air purifier that completely destroys airborne bacteria, mold, fungi, mycotoxins, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and odors. And because of the technology’s versatility, the product is now used in a variety of settings. Grocery stores and produce distribution facilities now use it, in addition to a host of wineries, distilleries, and floral businesses. The device has also found its way into refrigerators that are used for both homes and for distributing food aid to remote towns. In hospitals and clinics, Airocide’s powerful germ-killing properties are on full display as it purges the air of harmful bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus.

“In two days, you’ll notice how the bedroom just feels different. And as you get the chance to breathe in the air, you’ll start feeling better physically. You’re going to wake up feeling refreshed.”

—Barney Freedman, Akida Holdings 

The home Airocide unit has a sleek, glossy, rectangular body accented with orange-peel-colored inside walls. The product, which can either be mounted on a floor stand or hung on a wall, could easily pass for a modern work of art. But, beyond its aesthetics, according to Freedman, the product will change consumers’ quality of life. “You’re going to sleep better, and you’re going to feel better,” he says.

Airocide home unit
The Airocide unit can be laid on a flat surface, hung on a wall, or mounted to a floor stand.

Freedman notes that Airocide works differently from High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which are designed to capture particles that are 0.3 microns across and larger. If the strings on a tennis racquet represent the best of these filters, he says, and marbles represent dirt particles, the racquet’s ability to capture them is how the filter collects dust. But if your aim were to capture particles smaller than dust—like viruses, bacteria, and volatile organic compounds—they would just slip right through the filter, as BB gun pellets would drop through a racquet’s strings. Not so with Airocide. “We’re able to eliminate those particles on contact,” he says.

Airocide is simple to operate—just plug it into an outlet, turn it on, then forget about it. The only upkeep required is replacing the reaction chamber, which houses the UV light source, every 12-14 months. There’s a high and a low-intensity mode, as well as automatic, which alternates from high in the day to low at night.

While the unit functions in any room, Freedman suggests putting your first one in the bedroom. With all the hours spent sleeping, it’s the most important space to keep clear of contaminants. “In two days, you’ll notice how the bedroom just feels different,” he says. “And as you get the chance to breathe in the air, you’ll start feeling better physically. You’re going to wake up feeling refreshed. You’re not going to be stuffy in the morning nor will you have any of the issues associated with air quality that you had before.”

According to testimonials shared on the Airocide website, people credit the product with helping them and their loved ones attain relief from symptoms associated with asthma, allergies, and sinuses. Freedman isn’t the least bit surprised by their claims.

“We know technology-wise that this device works,” he says. “It was developed by NASA, it’s FDA-approved, and it’s been tested and vouched for by a host of universities. Not to mention the fact that we’ve been selling this for 10 years. We’re very confident in what it can do.”

AiroCide® is a registered trademark of KesAir Technologies LLC.



NASA project could be next big thing in video games

The video game’s description promised that two doctors were about to be swallowed by the jaws of fate.

Watching the action on the screen, Alan Pope said, somewhat unnecessarily, “You want to be careful with the scalpel when it’s jumping around.”

“This is really tricky,” replied Chad Stephens, studying the chest he was about to cut open.

The NASA research scientist wore a headset with sensors that monitored his brain waves. As he focused, his brain waves changed frequency, indicated by changing colors of LED lights below the screen. They flickered between red and yellow, then steadied on green. Stephens made a sudden movement with his hand.

“Oh, that’s good!” Pope exclaimed. A robotic voice from the game “Trauma Center: New Blood” intoned, “The incision has been made.”

Pope has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in clinical psychology. Stephens is working on his psychology dissertation. Both work in aeronautics at NASA’s Langley Research Center, where their core research on cockpit design has led to an interesting spinoff: a biofeedback device that makes video games harder for tense or distracted players.

The application is the latest in Pope’s research on brain wave monitoring. His studies on cockpit automation in the 1990s led to the creation of attention-training games by a North
Carolina company.

It’s all part of NASA’s transfer of tax-funded research into the private sector for development of new products and uses that benefit the public as well as the space agency. Langley research has been used by Speedo to create faster racing swimsuits, by Medtronics Inc. to stabilize heart-failure patients, and by NASCAR to clean air inside race cars.

NASA research can be found in medical devices, industrial smokestack scrubbers, panoramic cameras, solar refrigerators, emergency air supplies for coal miners, parachutes for airplanes and more. The agency says its research has been used to save 444,000 lives since 2004, and has generated $5.1 billion for the economy.

The biofeedback technology is commercially available from NASA’s Technology Gateway. Its inventors say it could be used in anything from video games to training simulations for medical doctors to athletes – wherever improved concentration would also improve performance.

“We didn’t invent the Wii, and we didn’t create the game,” Stephens said, “but we figured out how we could modify the controls to serve as feedback to the user.”

In April, NASA obtained a patent for using the technology, called MindShift, on the Wii gaming system. An application has been submitted for Kinect.

“If a company was interested, it could involve this biofeedback mechanism into a game,” Stephens said. “For example, a wizard could use his mental powers to go through the game. Maybe use it in a challenge here and there to demonstrate his skill.

“We could measure fear and have that impact the game in some way. It has the potential to involve a player’s real emotion into the game.”

NASA uses the technology to assess new cockpit designs by monitoring brain waves, heart rate and eye movement of pilots in a simulator.

“We want to be able to sense what kind of state they’re in and provide feedback on a continuous basis so they can understand how their state affects their performance,” Pope said. “If we design something that takes up too much of their attention or doesn’t draw their attention, we probably have poor design.”

Pilots can be taught to focus through standard biofeedback training, where the subject tries to control his heart rate, for example, while moving a line or a bar on a monitor. That can be boring, Pope said. Many of the test pilots enjoyed golf, so the researchers incorporated the biofeedback training into a game where being “in the zone” – mind in perfect sync with body – is important.

They tested a putting green that reacted to a player’s brain waves. When stressed or unfocused, the biofeedback mechanism caused the indoor putting green to undulate, the hole to shrink and a targeting laser to swing back and forth. By relaxing and focusing on the task at hand, players could sink the putt more easily.

Then the researchers tried it with video games, which have real-world possibilities, too.

“Playing a surgery game with an unsteady hand is challenging,” Pope said. “You could imagine this as a surgeon in training learning how to focus, while it teaches the manual skill of surgery.”

They booted up “Link’s Crossbow Training” on the Wii. Pope put on the headset, with a clip on his left earlobe to track his pulse. The cursor jumped around, and he couldn’t aim until his heart rate slowed.

He picked off a single target on the first screen and two targets on the next. Then five targets popped up at once, and the cursor jumped around so he couldn’t aim.

“Got a little excited there,” Pope said. As he calmed down and focused, the cursor steadied and he knocked down the targets one after the other.

“We think this is the next stage beyond motion sensing games,” he said. “That’s why we call it MindShift. We wanted developers to think about games in different ways. That would require a mind shift.”