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NASA develops new tool to improve accident investigations

  • Published
Scientists and engineers investigating accidents are working much more effectively and efficiently, thanks to a new software tool developed by NASA called the InvestigationOrganizer.

Developed at NASA Ames Research Center here, InvestigationOrganizer is a Web-based tool that provides information storage, management, and analysis capabilities to accident investigation teams.

"Mishap investigation reports used to be all over the map," said Yuri Gawdiak, manager of the Engineering for Complex Systems Program, which is developing the Investigation-Organizer. "It was a real problem getting access to them and doing any significant system-wide analysis."

Current investigating and reporting methods used by NASA's mishap investigation teams tend to be disparate and cumbersome. Teams have no standard methods or tools for information storage, management, dissemination or analysis - all issues that InvestigationOrganizer is designed to address.

"It's a vast improvement over previous methods of collecting and analyzing information," said Dr. Tina Panontin, NASA Ames' chief engineer and a co-project investigator for the InvestigationOrganizer. "When it's completed, everything you need to conduct an investigation will be there."

Dr. Rich Keller, a scientist within the computational sciences division, who along with Panontin serves as a project co-investigator, says the system combines the functionality of a database, a document-sharing system, and a 'hyper-linked' information navigation system.

"What we've really built is a browser that allows the investigation team to browse through the information and organize it so that it makes sense and is easy for them to get to," Keller said.

In addition, the tool provides analysis and visualization capabilities to assist investigators in formulating causal relationships and sequences.

Since accident investigations typically involve proprietary information, the software is protected by a password and transmissions sent concerning the investigation are encrypted to ensure that security is maintained.

The Engineering for Complex Systems Program, which is conducting research to develop methods and tools for improving mishap investigation processes, envisioned and began working on the InvestigationOrganizer in March. InvestigationOrganizer uses core technology from ScienceOrganizer, originally developed as a knowledge management tool that helps teams of scientists organize and share their project-related data, documents, images and records.

Although still in beta-testing, the InvestigationOrganizer is currently being used by NASA to investigate an accident involving the Comet Nucleus Tour spacecraft that occurred on Aug. 15. Prior to the mishap, CONTOUR had been scheduled to travel out of Earth's orbit and visit two comets over the next six years.

During the first three weeks of its use in the CONTOUR mishap investigation, the project team used the InvestigationOrganizer to assist investigators by entering and correlating more than 800 pieces of information, including 145 CONTOUR mission review documents and more than 50 photos of the solid rocket motor and other components. The tool also contains a representation of all the main spacecraft systems, cross-linked to relevant documents.

"The new tool has been particularly useful in organizing and prioritizing the relevant information for the CONTOUR mishap investigation board," said board Chairman Theron Bradley, NASA's chief engineer. The board expects to issue its findings in phases as further information becomes available.

This summer, InvestigationOrganizer was used during another investigation involving a pyrotechnic display mishap that occurred at this year's Moffett Field Air Expo. Panontin, who chaired the mishap investigation board for that accident, said the InvestigationOrganizer tool was successfully used to investigate the incident.

According to Panontin, InvestigationOrganizer has tremendous potential for a wide variety of other uses by organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate crimes and accidents.

"There's nothing in the tool that restricts its use; it can be configured to support any kind of investigation," Panontin said.

Within the next three years, Panontin said the project team hopes to incorporate additional artificial intelligence components into the software, to help guide decisions concerning the course or direction of an investigation.

"This is a tool that helps you see the connections between different pieces of information," Panontin said. "In mishap investigations, that's a critical part of the process. We believe it has unlimited potential."