Rough Sailing for Smart Ships; November 1998; Scientific American Magazine; by Hayashi; 1 Page(s)
Three years ago the U.S. Navy commenced a bold plan for slashing costs while preparing its fleet for the next century. The program, dubbed "Smart Ship," called for a reduction in crew levels through increasingly computerized ships. Additional savings would be achieved by using commercial off-the-shelf products, such as Pentium-chip computers, instead of expensive custom parts to build the new automated systems. But Smart Ship has recently encountered rough waters. A major computer crash on board the first of the automated ships has led to harsh criticisms of the navy initiative, and the dispute has touched off ugly accusations that important technical decisions are being controlled by politics--not by engineering.
The controversy began when the USS Yorktown, a guided-missile cruiser that was the first to be outfitted with Smart Ship technology, suffered a widespread system failure off the coast of Virginia in September last year. After a crew member mistakenly entered a zero into the data field of an application, the computer system proceeded to divide another quantity by that zero. The operation caused a buffer overflow, in which data leak from a temporary storage space in memory, and the error eventually brought down the ship¿s propulsion system. The result: the Yorktown was dead in the water for more than two hours.