Engineer Sets the Standard for Transportation Safety

August 2020
Uma Ferrell
Uma Ferrell

Uma Ferrell has devoted her career to making driving and flying safer.

She co-authored ANSI/UL 4600, the Standard for Safety for the Evaluation of Autonomous Products. It is the first and only publicly available safety standard for autonomous vehicles and other products, including manned and unmanned aircraft. The standard has accreditation from American National Standards Institute Underwriters Laboratories. 

Ferrell has more than 30 years studying technology that makes travel safer, including two stints at MITRE. She says the pace at which people are adopting autonomous technology and the new, unexpected ways they are using it give her pause. Technology developed for self-driving cars may be applied in drones or other aircraft. Who can imagine every possible operational scenario where the technology would be used?

She recognized the risks of industry fielding technology that seems safe, though no overall safety standards exist that encompass its design, production, and operation.

While delivering the keynote address at a computer safety and security conference in Sweden, Ferrell reconnected with Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He shared her concerns. They agreed to co-author standards that ensure safety considerations for autonomous systems evolve at the same pace as the technology. They envisioned standards that would help innovators consider what might go wrong and mitigate risks during the development process.

A Commitment to Solving Tough Problems

Ferrell had joined MITRE in 1990 as an engineer working for the Federal Aviation Administration on the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), technology that reduces in-air collisions. She also took graduate classes at Johns Hopkins University, earning her second master’s degree. After a few years she left MITRE to start a consulting company with her husband. Both were software and electronic hardware Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) for the FAA. They provided research, training, and engineering services for the aviation industry.

“Running my own business was a very rewarding experience since we took only highly innovative and challenging projects,” Ferrell says. They included the world’s first electrical brake actuator controller, avionics for the presidential helicopter, and use of commercially available software for the military's Boeing B-17x.

She continued to work occasionally as a consultant for MITRE. In 2017, she signed on full-time again with MITRE with the agreement that she continue her DER role when there is no conflict of interest. The agreement has worked to the benefit of both MITRE and Ferrell.

“MITRE keeps me engaged because I can work on a variety of projects with very intelligent, caring people with a passion for what we do,” she says. “I highly value my colleagues.”

Applying Agile Approaches to Standards Creation

All along, she witnessed the pace at which companies are adopting autonomous technology. Ferrell now works in the MITRE Transportation Innovation Center, which focuses on the future of transportation. The field of autonomous technology in transportation is still relatively young and untested. Take, for instance, an autonomous car, programmed to learn from its interactions on the road. What happens when it encounters an unsafe driver? 

“There are two possibilities,” Ferrell says. “It can learn bad habits from an unsafe driver on the street or learn to avoid it. Which way does the machine go? The vehicle may already be on the street. Now it is misbehaving. How do we contain this problem?”

As Ferrell, Koopman, and Frank Fratrik (who works for Koopman’s consulting company) built the standard based on safety case, another MITRE team was studying how to write standards quickly enough to keep up with the pace of technology innovation. Ferrell agreed that the UL safety standard would be an excellent proof of concept.

Within three months, Ferrell, Koopman, and Fratrik had expanded an 8-page table of contents into a 400-page standards proposal. Just one year and three months after the writing began, the American National Standards Institute recognized it as an international standard.

Standards Written to Last and Adapt

ANSI/UL 4600 needed to be written as a transportation safety document, but Ferrell expects it to change continually over time. The standard is goal-based and technology-agnostic to assure wide application. This approach makes it possible for innovators to field systems with an abundance of caution, mindful of the unknowns of novel technology.

Ferrell says it would not have happened without help from her MITRE colleagues.

“MITRE encouraged me and gave me a lot of backing,” she says. “Everyone was interested and saying this was a good cause, the right thing to do. That meant a lot, because this is a passion of mine—to get the overall safety standard to try out for road vehicles and eventually apply to the autonomous aviation arena.”

Besides her degree from Johns Hopkins, Ferrell holds bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry, and mathematics from Bangalore University and master’s degrees in physics from Bangalore University. She is an author of books/chapters, papers, standards, and presentations, and a frequent presenter at conferences like SafeComp 2018, where UL 4600 was conceived.

She loves her work, but also enjoys travel, hiking, reading, painting, cooking, and gardening, as well as playing Indian classical music on a 200-year-old, 7-stringed instrument called a Veena.

—by Molly Manchenton

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