Sunday, December 28, 2014

Commercial Aircraft Air Asia QZ8501 Goes Missing: Evolving Flight Risks Call for Upgraded Safety Measures

Hello World,

Another commercial aircraft vanishes, this time it is Air Asia QZ8501, an Airbus 320. A320 is one of the widely used commercial aircraft across the globe. There are airlines whose entire fleet is comprised of A320's.

The news release, so far indicates that the pilot requested a path change, a possible change in altitude and direction. This indicates that the pilot foresaw some weather challenges possibly due to moderate or severe turbulence related to thunderstorm events crossing the designated flight paths. The usual 'altitude-clearance' for escaping potential thunderstorm cloud is 2000 feet but this can vary depending on how bad the weather is (as per the pilot based on his observation of the radar & other instruments). The fact that the pilot requested altitude change from (about) 32000 to 38000 feet indicates he wanted to clear the bad weather envelope by a safe margin.

I think, this aircraft faced anomalies including or related to outage of electrical system resulting in the malfunctioning of guidance, navigation and control system. It can be faulty system failing during flight or system failing due to natural events such as lightning strikes (or any other thunderstorm related activity). Either ways, if the pilots had access to information pertaining to where the aircraft is, where it is headed and how it is heading there, they could have achieved an emergency landing. As usual, there is always the possibility of instantaneous disintegration of the aircraft. Again, nothing can be concluded until the investigation is completed.

From the atmospheric sciences view, we can get hit by a lightning even when we are significantly far from the thunderstorm cloud. As long as there is sufficient temperature difference that can cause charge separation and we (aircraft) happen to present ourselves as a means of discharge, we have every chance of inducing the discharge. Now the platform is built to take such weather anomalies. However, we can never say for sure the 'limit' of such natural phenomena. One small overshoot can set off a sequence of smaller anomalies that can spiral into something major and eventually result in a catastrophic event. It all depends on that first anomaly and how long it took to spiral into a catastrophic event.

Global Aircraft Disappearances & Lightning Activity

Two incidents of 'aircraft disappearance' within 1 year in the same airspace indicates more than random coincidence. I don't see any reason to question technology anymore. may be we need to open our minds to the idea that the weather-based flight operation risks are evolving and existing technologies are not versatile/robust enough to meet the new breed of 'worst-case-scenarios.'

The cause of the QZ8051 accident will only be known after the findings of the accident investigation are released.

However, there is a distant correlation, which, in the larger scheme of things, seem to get my attention and I think we need to look into that and go full-force towards preventive measures.

Based on my recent research on global lightning events, I believe the south-east asia (asia pacific in general) is part of the high-risk-regions for intense lightning activity. Please find below the time lapse video of 30 days' lightning events (from June, 2014) plotted on a world map (30 days' data including about 60000 lightning events in each plot):

Here's one plot from the video as reference for our understanding of the region's vulnerability to lightning events:

The plot above has about 60000 events plotted on the world map. If you look at the Asia Pacific region, it is clear that the south east asia is a place for active lightning events. Now this plot includes only those lightning events that are 'significantly large in terms of magnitude' as detected by the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) as managed and operated by the University of Washington. The basic criteria for a lightning event to be included in the data is when the event is detected by at least 5 stations from the global spread of over 50 such stations, each of them located about thousands of kilometres from each other. 

For a detailed look into global lightning phenomenon, feel free to look up:

Here's something I just came across on the internet:


Key Lies in Comparison

If we look at the infographic given above closely and compare it to the global lightning plot above (right after the youtube video), it is almost as if the plots resemble each other in terms of concentration of occurrences, geographically. Those locations that have the greatest number of red dots (lightning activity) are the regions where most aircraft vanishes have happened.

 It is true that the image has just one day's plot in comparison. But the video has a month's data in time lapse which has the similar trend. That analysis has data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network, collected by over 50 stations spread across the globe. The trend that we see in one image or the month's data is pretty much the same. Again, my point is not to take any 'causation' from the correlation. I am of the view, in surprise, that most of the 'aircraft disappearances' have happened in 'high-lightning' zones. To me that means that those aircraft that went missing, 'might' have encountered unfavorable weather conditions as the starting point of the 'crisis situation' that eventually led to their disappearance.

Well, this resemblance cannot be used for any conclusions at this point of time but this definitely points us towards a new angle of investigation. May be the flight conditions are evolving, and the current systems are struggling to cope with it. The technology is not bad but is getting outdated as we speak. The flight conditions are getting worse and our protective measures should get equally robust. They have been robust for decades but is this decade the same as the one before? Will the next decade be the same as this decade? The answer is a plain no. Then why would we expect the technology to be time-independent in terms of effectiveness?

What Could Be Done

Going All-Out on Preventive Measures.

I think it is time the ICAO and regional regulators (from Asia Pacific region) get together and draft a set of mandatory requirements that includes :

1. SATCOM Implementation (Cockpit & Cabin)
2. Upgrade of Lightning Protection Solutions

It doesn't stop with drafting new rules. In fact, it just begins with that. The implementation is the key here. Regulators in this region already have a tough time monitoring the operators. Every little compromise happening with procedures related to air-safety, both at the regulator and operator level renders the aircraft unsafe. Just because the probability of occurrence is very low, doesn't mean nothing bad will happen. Again, the potential impact is of importance and not the probability of occurrence.

For 'satcom implementation' I am not referring to the airlines using them for their communications. Satcom is considered expensive (subscription charges) and the airlines most often use them only when their aircraft is out-of-range from their line-of-sight communications. What I wish to suggest is a collaborative-satcom-implementation where along with the airlines, the regulators/ATC have visibility of the aircraft and more importantly, there is a real-time systems data streaming so any health deterioration can be detected and possibly predicted by an effective data-analysis regime. The objective of the collaborative effort should, in my view, focus on cost-sharing. The regulators can waive the % of annual cost for satcom implementation (enforced this way) in the duties/taxes that airlines pay. This will help the airlines achieve compliance without too much cost burden. Again, there are so many ways this could be achieved. All we need is a comprehensive satcom implementation for enhanced situational awareness, irrespective of how rarely these unfavorable situations occur.

I believe, both these upgrades will take the existing commercial aircraft safety one level above, into what may be a 'situationally aware' state of air-safety where the airlines, air-traffic controllers (civil/military) and satellite operators have real-time 'eyes-on-the-plane.' Also the aircraft will have a broader range of lightning protection in them.

I wish the plane is safe somewhere but my hopes are a mere reflection of what is human desperation for survival. If this aircraft is lost at sea, then we should stop talking about how advanced the platforms are and how great the procedures are.

The current capabilities and any capability for that matter will be in accordance with the concerned regulatory framework. However, we need to study evolving weather patterns and update our region wise 'worst-case-scenarios.' In practical terms, regulatory compliance is all about pre-written standards and the equipment checking out on the standards during their testing. I have great respect for the scientific community that develops the methods and regulator community that enforces the standards, but in rather blunt layman terms, a group of humans signing off on any technology will not guarantee safety during flight. It only asserts our confidence on the equipment for uptake. Our confidence has so far been proven right but this past year the aviation accidents have attempted to remind us that, standards and regulations have to get more customized, based on region-specific conditions. This to me means that, we need an evolutionary process for constantly measuring the weather patterns and have an ongoing flight-risk assessment feed into the regional framework of regulations. Now it will cost resources but we need to invest in that to be able to avoid aircraft disappearances. Again, by agreeing to constantly revisit flight risk-assessment, we will not doubt or undermine any technology or any entity's capacity to provide safe equipment/service. We have paid over 350 human lives this past year in 'aircraft disappearances' alone. We cannot go on anymore with the 'On what basis/capacity are you questioning our capability?' attitude. Even from a strict business sense, airlines need passengers to trust their 'air-safety' before they enjoy the 'enhanced passenger experience' through wi-fi and IFE. We will be questioned and we will be blamed but that is a price we must pay to enhance safety in commercial aviation. Just my thought.

Let's face it, whether we agree or not, weather-pattern is always variable and things can always go bad. In this case, it went bad twice within a year, in the same airspace. It is a waste of time identifying who went wrong and who failed to monitor them. We must focus on eliminating all potential possibilities of such an occurrence in future. The times are desperate and we need tough decisions and follow-up with implementation. Lives are more important than Return-On-Investment and budget constraints. This is the time for collaborative effort. We have already paid with human lives in hundreds. The objective is to prevent planes from vanishing. I can't believe, I just wrote that but sadly, it makes all the sense.

Continuing to hope for increasing air-safety in commercial aviation.

On a very different note [a shameless plug], if you are interested in unique tamil short films, feel free to visit couldn't tolerate the mass masala entertainers anymore and decided I will do my best to produce content with substance. I have a long a way to go as a producer and a start-up founder, but I am glad our journey has begun. I look forward to your support. Each film on our site costs INR 15. Thanks!!!


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Unexplored Online Shopping Options for the Indian Consumers: Tip for getting better deals on

Hello World,

This is the holiday season and most of us have or are buying gifts for self, family and friends. In this post, I want to familiarise you with some additional online shopping channels that can offer you products cheaper than those you might believe as the cheapest. Nothing ground-breaking here but I did identify an undiscovered link of ecommerce supply chain that has the capacity to deliver us consumers in India, the added benefit of ‘in-store’ discounts via conventional online shopping channels.

Long story short, I find that for so many products, can prove to be cheaper than from any other online retailer website that we are used to in India. Now a lot of things have to fall in place and I will walk you through it. My objective here is to empower the consumers, that is you and me, with a small piece of information that might help us save some money while buying products online. There is no cheating or malpractice involved in this whatsoever, so let’s get to it.

This past 6 weeks I believe is best pat of the year when all the companies release new products and retailers slash prices to clear their inventory. This trend is catching up everywhere and here in India, we consumers took it to a whole new level as online retailers miserably underestimated the demand for online shopping. One retailer wanted to make $100 million dollars in revenue in 24 hours with a particular ‘sale’ but reached that target in 10 hours and faced overbooking and web-traffic issues. Consumers lashed out at the retailer for being phony but the reality of the fact is that the retailer did not expect so many of us would turn up to buy products online here in India.

I have bought more than one product from (in the past few years) which cost me a lot less than what I might have paid while buying on the indian online retailer websites including Just like any other person, I would go to the major online retailer websites, one by one and look for my favorite product and then compare prices/reviews. I would buy the product which seems to be most appreciated and from the seller who has the least customer complaints. 

One day, I typed in in the address bar and it took me to I got curious about it and googled and realised the retailer is hosting different sites for different markets. My curiosity took me into the website and I started browsing it for the products I was looking in the Indian online retailer websites. Something dawned on me. 

Here is an example:

Given below are screenshots of different websites, for one particular product, which in this case is a GoPro Hero 3 camera (I bought one recently from and paid much less than what I would have paid if I had bought from the domestic ecommerce websites):

Indian Online Retailer 1:

Indian Online Retailer 2:

Look at the Hero 3 product image above. Hero 3 is the one as shown in the previous picture. For some reason the very product image is displayed wrong. May be a small glitch in displaying product information (or is it something else? I am just asking.) Product Option(international reseller/small business):

The product price +shipping totals $ 268.70 which as of 28th Dec, 2014 equals about INR 17140.37. 

INR 17140 is way less than the other entries as captured from Indian online retailers. Even if you consider the 28% duty, the total will be around INR 21000 and the $ 268.70 is not the cheapest deal for Hero 3 on I just took the first economical deal I could find. If you search a little bit more, you might get an even better deal on it. 

We can try this out everytime we look to buy something online. I think it would be worth the time looking up international resellers on sites such as at least for products such as consumer electronics. Spread the word and see if your friends find similar deals. We need to remember that 'sharing information' is the real power of consumers. 

How does this work? Well here’s how I understand this. Consumers in established markets have access to frequent in-store and online discount/clearance sales where the prices are slashed by big margins. The Black Friday sale is the most prominent one but stores and online retailers tend to host such events from time to time whenever they find a particular set of inventory holding up space and investment. Now these products when they reach the hands of those who sell on eBay, the rest of the consumer world gets the product at a price different from the rest of the big businesses. Remember, we are talking about individuals who buy and sell stuff from their homes. At least, most of whom I bought from are that type of eBay sellers. There are some who have been doing this for a long time I suppose since I see them classified as Top Rated Seller.

The interesting thing here to me is that, we consumers now have in-direct access to in-store and regional discount sales through these entrepreneurial individual sellers (or resellers). Credits to their thinking, we consumers have one additional choice that can add value.

I think, we consumers here in the Indian market, can leverage the low price options from international resellers (mostly small businesses) to get the most out of our online spending. I have bought diverse categories of products this way and I believe, you can too. 

However, there is a risk of choosing the wrong reseller. I will remind you to exercise your discretion and analyse the purchase decision and product/reseller choice carefully before you decide. What I am describing here is a mere indication and no endorsement of any business. This is a tip from one consumer to another, nothing less, nothing more.

Indian ecommerce market is rapidly growing and the trend of impulse shopping has caught up with the consumers here. 

Finally, the ecommerce  domain has established itself as a major consumer-influencing force and the brick-and-mortar businesses are switching to or adding up their click-and-mortar business models. There is however a rising concern of bad service and online frauds as consumers are just getting aware of the internet traps. In other news, the tele-marketing shows are seriously targeting the older demographics and the companies that are going full flow with late night tele-marketing shows are those who were notorious for online frauds in the ecommerce domains. The consumers got so annoyed that they reviewed those retailers out of mainstream internet trade. Now they are after the gullible older demographics who are not sure about online purchases and find ‘comfort’ products very luring. 

Overall, the ecommerce industry is growing by the billion but yet to offer the product diversity as in established markets. Consumers are learning new pre-purchase and post-purchase quality perceptions and the retailers have to listen to them right now. The brick-and-mortar businesses should now get their own internet-based business model running or see their business migrate away to other online retailers. Good times ahead for those businesses who put their customers first.

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Image Source:

Product display pics (retailers 1 & 2): Those are screenshots from the respective retailer websites. I think it is better we let their identity be anonymous or let's say open to interpretation. Maybe they get their brains that way. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cooperative Hunting for Kashmir’s Security: Analysis of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Application

Hello World,

I have been pondering over this for over an year now as to why not our security efforts in Kashmir use Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) extensively to carry out regular recon missions and when needed, appropriate air raids. I am working on military avionics right now and thought, it would be worth the time discussing my thoughts on this topic.

If we were to use a Swarm of RPA’s and execute the Cooperative Hunting mission over the high risk regions of Jammu & Kashmir, what would that look like and what will be the key elements of such a system? How will the Swarm function as a single unit and what type of technology do we need to make that possible and efficient? Let’s dig.

Out of the total land covered by Jammu and Kashmir, only 17% is reported for land utilization, out of which 53% is classified as forest cover. Out of the total forest cover, 59% of the forest cover is comprised of Very Dense Forest and Medium Dense Forest. Also 57% of the total forest cover exists at altitudes greater than 2000 meters. This leaves the security efforts in those regions vulnerable to natural adversaries including extreme weather, unreachable terrains and limited or no visibility.  

Border security is always top priority and securing the borders of high altitude landscapes with dense forest cover just makes the work more dangerous and complicated. Unmanned systems is definitely an option that will save a whole lot of tax payers’ money and the lives of the soldiers we risk by deploying them in those regions which are notoriously famous for unlawful entry and terrorist activities. 

The current trend in the RPA domain is Cooperative Hunting or more commonly known as Swarm Operation, where multiple RPA’s are engaged in a collaborative format to achieve a common objective. The critical element of this application is the concept of RPA’s supporting each other to achieve the mission objectives.

Here’s a baseline formation scheme that I have in mind for our Cooperative Hunting Convocation (CHC), shown in Figure 1 below:  

Figure 1 Formation Concept for a Cooperative Hunting Mission
For the sake of this discussion we will assume the CHC (shown in Figure 1) begins the mission with incomplete knowledge of the terrain and target locations. Before we proceed to the mission, we need to understand the roles of each member of the CHC.

These will execute the pre-mission survey of threats and also as decoys during the mission. These will be lowest in altitude and be the first eyes to look over the target area for a preliminary assessment of the region (weather, visibility and threats). 

These will be the navigational wing of the convocation, scanning the target area, detecting the targets and tracking their movements. The spotters will serve as the primary eyes of the convocation. These will stay above the scouts in altitude as per the mission needs from the navigational standpoint.

These will be the attack wing of the convocation, executing the attacks on the targets as marked by the spotters. These will carry the largest volume of ammunition in the convocation and will stay above the spotters in the formation. These will get out of the formation as per the attack task allocated by the commander. 

This will be the primary decision maker for the CHC. The commander will collect mission data from every other member of the convocation, process it and supply the members with appropriate information, eventually reducing the mission-level decision making workload for the other members. The commander will also keep track of mission objectives and derive tactical objectives for every other member of the convocation.

This will serve as the primary point of contact between the CHC and the command & control center that controls the cooperative hunting mission. The signaller will remain above the rest of the convocation at all times such that the rest of the convocation will be in contact with the command & control center as long as they are in contact with the Signaller.

Mission Algorithm at the CHC Level
The mission algorithm for a typical cooperative hunting mission will decide the decentralized interaction within the CHC, as indicated by the cross-functional process flow diagram in Figure 2 given below:
Figure 2 Decentralized Mission Algorithm within the Convocation
As we can see in Figure 2, the commander drives the cooperative hunting mission initiating the crucial steps of the mission and guiding the individual mission tasks as per the inputs from the members of the CHC. 

The interaction described in Figure 2 is specific to the ‘cooperative’ element of the mission and therefore the signaller is not included. In the broader mission algorithm, which will be comprehensive, the signaller will be represented as connected with all the members of the CHC since that will be the means to send back platform-level and mission-level data when direct links with the members get disturbed during the mission.

The primary mission computing will be executed by the commander where the platform level data from the members and their task status will be compared with mission objectives to determine each member’s suitability with the task to evaluate and revise mission task allocation in an ongoing basis. This way, the CHC, in a state of regulated autonomy, will be efficiently executing the mission objectives while preserving the safety of the members.

The scouts and spotters will be following a flight pattern similar to that of a ‘sweep’ protocol, except, their flight loops will be so designed as to make sure, the areas they together sweep will under their view at all times until the end of the mission. This way the CHC will have a constant wide angle view of the target area within which detecting, tracking and engaging the targets will be more reliable than in the usual case where the mission command has to wait until the designated RPA gets over the target area. 

The data from the scouts will also drive the CHC’s overall mission profile, touching all critical elements such as the flight patterns, flight speeds, sensor sensitivity/modes and task sequencing. This indicates the dependence of the CHC on distributed data, centralized computing and subsequent platform-level flight planning to meet the needs of mission-level ‘cooperative’ task executions. Also this way, when one member of the convocation goes down, the others can redistribute the mission objectives among themselves and the CHC can restructure itself to the changing mission conditions. This element of ‘cooperative restructuring’ will enhance the reliability of the CHC which in turn will substantiate the investment made on the CHC assets.
Regulated Autonomy
The very concept of cooperative hunting mission refers to the element of autonomy the system will execute mission objectives. The significant feature here will be the regulatory element of the autonomy, which will keep the cooperative system architecture from exceeding any limits. In other sense, the command and control centre from where each of the RPA will be piloted by trained pilots, will decide when to let the system attain the autonomy. 

In operational terms, the autonomous mission will be executed in batches of ‘Autonomous Mission Executions’ where depending upon the mission requirements, the RPA’s will be precisely controlled by the pilots. The continuos state of autonomy for the CHC will depend on the health of the platforms, the compliance of the cooperative architecture with the mission commands as issued by the command & control center  and level of degradation of the system functionalities irrespective of the states of their health. 

Fault Tolerant Cooperative Control 
The RPA’s should have fault tolerant control systems which can reconfigure to make the RPA suitable (as far as possible) to the mission objectives, making it eligible to execute tasks based on the level of system degradation it might be subjected to (by enemy fire or extreme weather). The system health data will be used by the commander to continuously asses the RPA’s ‘fit’ for specific mission tasks and will only be allocated tasks that are within the capabilities of the concerned RPA. This way, the CHC architecture is embedded with an element of fail-safe operational mode where the individual members will not act beyond their level of competence. 

At the platform level, each RPA (scouts, spotters and shooters) will be broadcasting its health status while calculating its capacity to executing mission tasks. The commander will be constantly monitoring the members’ health status and use that data to compute the mission status, success probabilities and alternate task allocations (active system restructuring options). Figure 3 given below presents a brief overview of data-links between the members of CHC among themselves and with the command & control center:
Figure 3 Control-Specific Data-Relay Scheme

The fault tolerant control system depends heavily on the computation of the platform-level data being relayed to the commander from the members as indicated in Figure 3. 

Mission Computing
The CHC needs robust & intuitive mission computing capability and this narrows down to custom-designed, verified and validated software built into the mission systems. The processing modes and methods must be specific to the operating conditions in Jammu & Kashmir. The software platform must be able to provide opportunity to integrate multiple sensors across platforms and allow the systems to share data as designed. The transformation module will be a crucial element of the system as it will translate data from sensors into formats and values that other systems can easily receive and use in their computations. 

Seamless Connectivity
Needless to say, high throughput connectivity is the basic need for the CHC to function. Air-to-Air links will remain prominent in the architecture as the convocation will share and process large volume of data among themselves. High throughput connectivity will let the system enjoy the luxury of distributed sensing & storage while also implementing centralised computing. Besides, majority of cooperative hunting missions in Kashmir is going to be beyond line of sight and therefore high throughput is just absolutely necessary.

Sensor Versatility
Multimode sensors capable of adjusting to Kashmir’s extreme weather conditions must be integrated on to the RPA’s. The sensors should provide configurable operating modes such that they are optimised to suit the mission needs. With a large section of forest cover over high altitudes, visibility issues are going to be a common affair and therefore the sensors should be developed with strong high altitude very dense forest cover as part of the operating conditions. 

Cooperative Architecture Evolution
The CHC architecture for Kashmir’s security measure has to be evolved and not bought as a plug-and-play toy-set. The platforms should be bought along with the systems, integrated and verified at platform level. The mission computer software needs to be developed in parallel such that the Indian forces in Kashmir can operate the Cooperative Hunting Convocation in their own terms. Troop familiarisation with international systems will compromise the quality of the desired command and control capability. This will also drag the architecture’s efficiency down. 

The CHC Architecture should be evolved such that, moving forward, Indian forces can integrate any number of RPA’s and manned platforms to the system and they should function as one collaborative unit or multiple cooperative hunting convocations. Open system architecture will have to be the basic assumption behind this entire effort. 

Improved Border Security
There has been multiple infiltration attempts along the line of control in Kashmir and many lives of Indian soldiers have been lost along the borders, just so a bunch of militants wanted to conduct a short-term sieges along the border in a demonstration of intent to claim segments of Indian borders. The last time I worked on Systems Tool Kit, the Indian border was not even a closed loop. The north end of the Indian line-of-control is a segment of dotted line with a visible gap, indicating uncertainty over the extent of the border in those regions. The geography and weather conditions of those regions are not human-friendly and the Indian forces have to risk more to even make a presence there.

With custom-designed Cooperative Hunting Convocations comprising diverse types of remotely piloted aircraft, the Indian forces can take the war to the adversaries with enhanced capabilities any given time. Hoping to see a secure border and technologically advanced border security measures.

If you wish to discuss more on what the system requirements might be from the supplier's standpoint, do join the discussion on my LinkedIn post.

Do share your comments and suggestions in the comment section below. Thanks for taking time to read my post. Have a great day!!!!!

On a very different note [a shameless plug], if you are interested in unique tamil short films, feel free to visit couldn't tolerate the mass masala entertainers anymore and decided I will do my best to produce content with substance. I have a long a way to go as a producer and a start-up founder, but I am glad our journey has begun. I look forward to your support. Each film on our site costs INR 15. Thanks!!!


Image Sources:
Command & Control Image in Fig 3: 

Icons in Fig 1: