The power grid is a complicated beast, regardless of where you live. Power plants have to send energy to all of their clients at a constant frequency and voltage (regardless of the demand at any one time), and to do that they need a wide array of equipment. From transformers and voltage regulators to line reactors and capacitors, breakers and fuses, and solid-state and specialized mechanical relays, almost every branch of engineering can be found in the power grid. Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the most obvious part of the grid: the wires that actually form the grid itself.
Engineers are, for the time being, only human. This applies even more so to executives, and all the other people that make up a modern organisation. Naturally, mistakes are made. Some are minor, while others are less so. It’s common knowledge that problems are best dealt with swift and early, and yet so often they are ignored in the hopes that they’ll go away.
You might have heard the name Takata in the news over the last few years. If that name doesn’t ring a bell you’ve likely heard that there was a major recall of airbag-equipped vehicles lately. The story behind it is one of a single decision leading to multiple deaths, scores of injuries, a $1 billion fine, and the collapse of a formerly massive automotive supplier.
Something strange has been going on in the friendly skies over the last day or so. Flights are being canceled. Aircraft are grounded. Passengers are understandably upset. The core of the issue is GPS and ADS-B systems. The ADS-B system depends on GPS data to function properly, but over this weekend a problem with the quality of the GPS data has disrupted normal ADS-B features on some planes, leading to the cancellations.
What is ADS-B and Why Is It Having Trouble?
Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is a communication system used in aircraft worldwide. Planes transmit location, speed, flight number, and other information on 1090 MHz. This data is picked up by ground stations and eventually displayed on air traffic controller screens. Aircraft also receive this data from each other as part of the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS).
ADS-B isn’t a complex or encrypted signal. In fact, anyone with a cheap RTL-SDR can receive the signal. Aviation buffs know how cool it is to see a map of all the aircraft flying above your house. Plenty of hackers have worked on these systems, and we’ve covered that here on Hackaday. In the USA, the FAA will effectively require all aircraft to carry ADS-B transponders by January 1st, 2020. So as you can imagine, most aircraft already have the systems installed.
The ADS-B system in a plane needs to get position data before it can transmit. These days, that data comes from a global satellite navigation system. In the USA, that means GPS. GPS is currently having some problems though. This is where Receiver autonomous integrity monitoring (RAIM) comes in. Safety-critical GPS systems (those in planes and ships) cross-check their current position. If GPS is sending degraded or incorrect data, it is sent to the FAA who displays it on their website. The non-precision approach current outage map is showing degraded service all over the US Eastern seaboard, as well as the North. The cause of this signal degradation is currently unknown.
What Hardware is Affected?
GPS isn’t down though — you can walk outside with your cell phone to verify that. However, it is degraded. How a plane’s GPS system reacts to that depends on the software built into the GPS receiver. If the system fails, the pilots will have to rely on older systems like VOR to navigate. But ADS-B will have even more problems. An aircraft ADS-B system needs position data to operate. If you can’t transmit your position information, air traffic controllers need to rely on old fashioned radar to determine position. All of this adds up to a safety of flight problem, which means grounding the aircraft.
Digging through canceled flight lists, one can glean which aircraft are having issues. From the early reports, it seems like Bombardier CRJ 700 and 900 have problems. Folks on Airliners.net are speculating that any aircraft with Rockwell Collins flight management systems are having problems.
This is not a small issue, there are hundreds or thousands of canceled flights. The FAA set up a teleconference to assess the issue. Since then, the FAA has issued a blanket waiver to all affected flights. They can fly, but only up to 28,000 feet.
This is a developing story, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it. Seeing how the industry handles major problems is always educational, and there will be much to learn in the coming days.
Over the years we’ve had the dubious honor of bidding farewell to numerous companies that held a special place in the hearts of hackers and makers. We’ve borne witness to the demise of Radio Shack, TechShop, and PrintrBot, and even shed a tear or two when Toys “R” Us shut their doors. But as much as it hurt to see those companies go, nothing quite compares to this. Today we’ve learned that Maker Media has ceased operations.
Between the first issue of Make magazine in 2005 and the inaugural Maker Faire a year later, Maker Media deftly cultured the public face of the “maker movement” for over a decade. They didn’t create maker culture, but there’s no question that they put a spotlight on this part of the larger tech world. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the shuttering of Maker Media could have far reaching consequences that we won’t fully understand for years.
While this news will surely come as a crushing blow to many in the community, Maker Media founder and CEO Dale Dougherty says they’re still trying to put the pieces together. “I started the magazine and I’m committed to keeping that going because it means something to a lot of people and means something to me.” At this point, Dale tells us that Maker Media is officially in a state of insolvency. This is an important distinction, and means that the company still has a chance to right the ship before being forced to declare outright bankruptcy.
In layman’s terms, the fate of Make magazine and Maker Faire is currently uncertain. The intent is to restructure the organization and rehire enough people to keep the brand alive, but it may take rethinking their business model entirely. While they aren’t looking to crowdsource the resurrection of Make, Dale said he believes the answer may ultimately come from the community’s willingness to financially support them, “my question is can we perhaps rely on the community to offer support for what we’re doing in ways we have not asked for in the past.” Ideas currently being discussed include the sort of annual membership and pledge drives used by public broadcasting.
It’s impossible to overstate the positive influence that Make has had on the public’s perception of DIY. It put on a global pedestal the sort of projects which otherwise might have never been seen outside the basement workshops or garages they were constructed in. Through their events and outreach programs, Make showed an entire generation of young people that building something just for the joy of building it was something to be proud of. Make proved that nerds could be cool in a way that had never been done before, and worryingly, may never be done again. Let’s take a look at that legacy.
In several decades of hanging around people who make things, one meets a lot of people fascinated by locks, lock picking, and locksport. It’s interesting to be sure, but it had never gripped me until an evening in MK Makerspace when a fellow member had brought in his lockpicking box with its selection of locks, padlocks, and tools. I was shown the basics of opening cheap — read easy from that— padlocks, and though I wasn’t hooked for life I found it to be a fascinating experience. Discussing it the next day a friend remarked that it was an essential skill they’d taught their 12-year-old, which left me wondering, just what skills would you give to a 12-year-old? Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: What Skills Would You Give A Twelve Year Old?”
Developing a product and getting it out there to build a business is really hard. Whether it’s a single person acting alone to push their passion to the public, or a giant corporation with vast resources, everyone has to go through the same basic steps, and everyone needs to screw those steps up in the same way.
The reality is that the whole process needs to involve lots of aspects in order to succeed; small teams fail by not considering or dedicating resources to all of those aspects, and large teams fail by not having enough communication between the teams working on those pieces. But in truth, it’s a balance of many aspects that unlock a chance at a successful product. It’s worth recognizing this balance and seeking it out in your own product development efforts, whether you’re a one-engineer juggernaut or a large, established company.
It seems these days that the news is never good. Speaking from experience, that’s really nothing new; there’s always been something to worry about, and world leaders have always been adept at playing the games that inevitably lead to disturbing news. Wars always result in the very worst news, of course, and putting any kind of modifier in front of the word, like “Cold” or “proxy”, does little to ameliorate the impact.
And so the headlines have been filled these last months with stories of trade wars, with the primary belligerents being the United States and China. We’ve covered a bit about how tariffs, which serve as the primary weapons in any trade war, have impacted the supply of electronic components and other materials of importance to hackers.
But now, as the trade war continues, a more serious front is opening up, one that could have serious consequences not just to the parties involved but also to the world at large. The trade war has escalated to include rare earth metals, and if the threats and rumors currently circulating come to fruition, the technologies and industries that make up the very core of modern society will be in danger of grinding to a halt, at least temporarily.