Well, thank goodness for that! I was glad to read that the Air Force is keen on keeping its pilots, crew, and other military personnel safe as they fly from point A to point B. But as a civilian, I must confess to being even happier to hear that commercial airlines want the same predictive capabilities for their fleets.
NASA is lending a helping hand toward these efforts, as I learned during a presentation last week at The Innovative Enterprise Ltd.'s Big Data Innovation Summit in Boston. According to Ashok Srivastave, the agency's principal scientist leader, NASA is analyzing data coming off of planes to study safety implications -- an effort that will ultimately help commercial airlines improve maintenance procedures and head off equipment failure.
"The work that we're doing in big-data has implications for anybody who flies on an airplane," he said.
And big-data it is. According to Srivastave, while in flight, an airplane records data at a rate of about 1,000 parameters per second. Some of the numeric data is continuous, while some of the data is discrete, telling how the pilot is working the aircraft. Flight and ground crews also write narrative reports, so NASA must examine text data, too.
Consider the roughly 10 million domestic flights annually, toss in radar and weather data -- and, well, you can see that "big" might not really even be the appropriate adjective to describe the massive size of the datasets NASA is mining.
The good news, Srivastave said (and I agree), is that airlines have "an extremely safe system." On a worldwide basis, he noted, "we don't hear or see too many issues on aviation safety, which is really a remarkable accomplishment."
The bad news is that one safety failure on an aircraft can have catastrophic consequences, as in the case of the Air France flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean three years ago. Devastating results like this -- 228 people lost their lives on that fateful flight -- live long in the public memory. Wouldn't it be wonderful to diminish such possibilities to a negligible state?
The key is measuring and monitoring these aspects of aviation through big-data analytics, which NASA does through its open-source Multiple Kernel Anomaly Detection (MKAD) algorithm, Srivastave said. Using MKAD, NASA can determine if two continuous data streams or two networks are similar, and then analyze them using a single, unified framework. "If we can extract patterns," Srivastave told the audience, "that could pose a tremendous advantage and help everybody proactively manage risk."
Investigating yesterday's crash data, while important, isn't enough. "That's fighting yesterday's challenge," Srivastave said. "We want to move in the right direction... and figure out what's going to happen before it happens." He added that numeric and text data in the MKAD algorithm significantly improves the rankings of the monitored anomalies by as much as 7,000 points.
But what does this mean for you, me, and the rest of the flying public? By 2015, it will mean a lot.
NASA has partnered with Honeywell Aerospace to find methods for automatically discovering precursors to adverse events while an airplane is in flight. With big-data innovations, carriers would be able to carry out real-time detection of problems, diagnostics, prognosis (how long before the event turns into a real problem), and mediation, all while in flight. Honeywell, Srivastave added, can already predict about 30 flights ahead of an engine failure -- meaning a carrier would be able to mitigate the problem 30 flights ahead of time. "With even more big-data initiatives, that will go to 50 flights," he said.
"This is real data, and it's posing a very positive future for an awful lot of us that do a lot of flying," said Srivastave, noting that this capability is planned for insertion on commercial aircraft like the Boeing 777 and 787 in 2015. NASA's work, he added, filters down through the Federal Aviation Administration to carriers (except for Southwest Airlines, which has a direct relationship with NASA).
If you're interested in learning more about what NASA and others are doing with big-data analytics to improve safety, you might find this hour-long TV program of interest:
Are you comfortable flying today? Do you think you'll be more comfortable after data mining goes airborne in 2015? Share your thoughts below.