Last updateWed, 26 Feb 2020 7pm

Saarbrücken computer scientists receive award for pioneering work on time-critical software systems

The Airbus A380 is the largest commercial aircraft in series production. When the wide-bodied aircraft lands safely, its control software has set countless components in motion at the correct times over 500 kilometers of cable. The basics for the automatic analysis of such time-critical software systems, such as those found in cars, trains and industrial plants, come from computer scientists at Saarland University. For their pioneering work, which was published in 2001, they were honored yesterday evening in New York at the International Conference on Embedded Software.

Embedded software comprises programs that run on computers and control a technical system, for example, the anti-lock braking system (ABS) in cars. The software components here work together with sensors and control lines in the microsecond range. If they do their job only fractions of a second too late, this can have fatal consequences. Therefore, the embedded system must complete the necessary calculations within a given time window. Experts refer to this as "time limits", within which a process must be guaranteed to be completed – for example to prevent the wheels from locking during braking.

At the turn of the millennium, it was almost impossible to calculate runtime guarantees. A new generation of microprocessors has surpassed the previous methods. This is precisely where the method and software published in 2001 came in, for which the computer scientists at Saarland University have now been awarded the "Test-of-Time Award". Then, as now, they used so-called static analysis. It can be used to check the properties of the states of a piece of software, independent of a concrete input. This makes it possible to calculate upper limits for the execution times of the software. This again allowed runtime guarantees to be given.

"Our software thus provided the first static, correct and precise runtime analysis," explains Reinhard Wilhelm, Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Saarland University and one of the eight award-winning researchers. The computer scientists from Saarbrücken selected three independent working groups consisting of international software experts. The working groups based their choice on the large number of other research projects that cited the project from Saarbrücken and the many discussions that made it possible.

The authors had already given the first indications of the importance of the project in 2001. In the accompanying essay, they wrote: “Airbus is currently deciding whether it will use our technology to test its own aircraft software.” At that time the technology was already the basis for the spin-off "AbsInt" and its software "aiT Worst-Case Execution Time Analyzer". The French aircraft manufacturer Airbus actually used this program to check the control software of the largest passenger aircraft in the world. On April 27, 2005, the Airbus A380 landed safely at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France after its maiden flight. Since then, other Airbus aircraft types have been certified using the tools developed by AbsInt.

The award-winning computer scientists are Christian Ferdinand, Reinhold Heckmann, Marc Langenbach, Florian Martin, Michael Schmidt, Henrik Theiling, Stephan Thesing and Professor Reinhard Wilhelm.


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