National Security Depends on Standards

Mike Seavey, chair, IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee 20, engineering program manager, Northrop Grumman Corporation

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A half-century’s work on test and measurement supports armed forces and commercial aviation

An effort to standardize the testing and diagnostics of electronic components and systems that began in 1966 has continued to this day, with significant impacts on our safety and national security.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of our collective efforts to improve automatic test systems (ATS). This effort began with a single standard from the commercial aviation industry and has over a half-century morphed into a family of more than 30 related standards that apply as well to the United States’ and NATO’s military capabilities on the ground, at sea and in the air.

The arc of this story reflects on the success of the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) and its strengths as a globally respected standards development organization with a transparent, inclusive process trusted by industry and government. It also illustrates how standards are living documents that evolve to meet new needs and changing circumstances and, in so doing, more effectively support an improved quality of life for us all.

An industry need arises

In 1966, the commercial aviation industry sought to develop a standardized language for expressing test specifications and procedures. This language was known as ATLAS – Abbreviated Test Language for All Systems, an English-like description of a test of an electronic component that both a computer and a human could read. As often happens, industry players understood that they needed a third party with a transparent, inclusive process, a broad array of subject matter experts and a global reputation to develop a universally accepted standard. Enter: IEEE SA.

A decade later, in December 1976, the IEEE Standards Board approved IEEE/ARINC Standard ATLAS Test Language, IEEE Standard 416™–1976. It would prove crucial to the preparation and documentation of test procedures that could be implemented manually or with automatic or semi-automatic equipment.

By that time, the ATLAS standard had gained widespread acceptance throughout the avionics industry and, though initially created for use by the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC), it had been introduced in numerous military applications and designated as an interim standard by the U.S. Department of Defense.

A standard begets a family

Over time, as new needs were recognized, this initial effort spawned new categories of standards and more than 30 specific standards developed in different domains.

For instance, the IEEE 1505™ based series addresses what’s referred to as the mass interconnect to the automated test equipment station itself, the hardware interface on how signals get in and out of whatever electronic component is being tested and extends to the instrumentation in use. The subject matter experts (SMEs) working on IEEE 1505-related standards have to understand the physical and electrical properties and behavior of hardware, pin contacts, insertion loss and wires.

Another example is the IEEE 1232™-based family of standards which encompass artificial intelligence, diagnostic reasoning, and expert systems. The SMEs working in that area are primarily computer scientists determining how historical data can be applied to tests to provide swifter, more accurate tests.

The benefits of time

Readers should note that 50 years isn’t just an anniversary. We have accumulated a half-century of experience – and data – related to the test and diagnosis of electronic components. That experience and data has materially contributed to making speedier and more accurate diagnoses of failures in the present day.

As the world changes, we’re attempting to address new needs as swiftly and efficiently as possible. Standards are living documents that get revised as new needs such as cybersecurity arise.

The future: prognostics

Where is testing and diagnostics in electronics going? In a word, “prognostics” – predicting the likeliness of an equipment failure and its probable cause, perhaps the ultimate promise of data analytics. That’s where 50 years of experience and data provides an invaluable resource.

Prognostics will make maintenance schedules more data-centric and condition- and priority-based and involve less guesswork. It will improve the design and manufacturing of electronic components and systems at the front end of the cycle. And it will warn of predictable failures.

In accomplishing these advances, prognostics will ultimately make commercial aviation safer and better protect the lives of our armed forces and the citizens they defend.

How it gets done

Active stewardship of ATS-related standards means that they are revised as new needs are recognized. The Standards Coordinating Committee 20 (SCC20) currently maintains more than 30 standards, of which many are in the revision process. Institutional support is critical and SCC20 is co-sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society, the IEEE Instrumentation & Measurement Society and the IEEE Aerospace & Electronic Systems Society. Behind the scenes, the IEEE SA’s staff works tirelessly to support our communal efforts.

The work I’ve described is all accomplished by volunteers and we’re always in need of more perspectives and participation in the process. If you have expertise in testing and diagnostics for electronics, we can use your help on the SCC20 Committee, and working groups. The benefits are many and include professional networking and career building, as well as influence on and insight into how standards affecting your industry are shaped and articulated.

Our community meets face-to-face twice annually. In 2016, the first meeting will take place 24-26 May, in North Reading (Boston area) at Teradyne’s Corporate Headquarters. The second will be held in conjunction with IEEE Autotestcon, on 12-15 September 2016, in Anaheim, Calif.

I cordially invite you to join our community and, in the words of the IEEE’s fundamental mission, “advance technology for the benefit of humanity.”