DornerWorks receives grant for Navy project

February 6, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Grand Rapids-based DornerWorks Ltd. has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant for development it is doing for the U.S. Navy on a highly technical avionics system to enhance safety in flight.

The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Technology administers the SBIR grants, which are intended to ensure that the nation's small, high-tech, innovative businesses are a significant part of the federal government's research and development efforts. Eleven federal departments participate in the SBIR program.

DornerWorks, an engineering firm that specializes in imbedded systems combining software and electronics, received the grant for further work on its ARLX hypervisor for the ARINC 653, the central part of the in-flight computing system on advanced aircraft including the Boeing Dreamliner. DornerWorks worked with GE Aviation on the system for the Dreamliner.

"DornerWorks is intrigued by the intersection of software and hardware in safety-critical applications” such as aviation and medical procedures, said Steven VanderLeest, vice president of R&D at DornerWorks and also an engineering professor at Calvin College.

DornerWorks’ ARLX is the first hypervisor ever published to the open source community, which means any individual or organization can work with it, without charge. A hypervisor is a type of software that allows the running of multiple operating systems on one computer hardware platform.

VanderLeest said the first phase of the SBIR grant is $100,000, which may result in the hiring of another person for the ARLX project.

“If phase 1 goes well, we can pursue a phase 2 grant, which could be five times larger,” said VanderLeest.

The official name of the grant is “U.S. Navy SBIR N102-184: Isolation Techniques for Untrusted Software” used with ARINC 653, an avionics standard.

DornerWorks will partner with Galois Inc. of Portland, Ore., which does mathematical proof checking, “to apply the formal methods proof-checking and key Digital Safety Consultants to address the safety artifacts (using FAA flight certification as a guide). Additional safety platforms for future revisions of ARLX include medical and banking industries — both of which provide real-time and safety-critical products and services to the clients they serve.”

ARLX is the code name DornerWorks uses internally for its prototype ARINC 653 hypervisor, which “leverages open-source technology and thus gives us a vehicle to explore the current design space and study some of the most challenging questions in safety-critical domains such as aerospace and medical. Our work thus far, along with funding through the SBIR program, provides the opportunity to pursue three goals simultaneously: (a) evidence-based assurance of safety of operation; (b) evidence-based security of data; and (c) high system performance,” according to VanderLeest.

Since ARLX is available to anyone to use for free, how does DornerWorks make money on it?

The U.S. Navy is actually a customer, and the SBIR grant it helped obtain for DornerWorks is one form of revenue stream generated by the release of ARLX.

VanderLeest said the development of ARLX for the open-source community also “serves as marketing for us, to show that we have strong expertise in this area.”

It also serves as a potential catalyst for future sales.

“In safety critical markets — for instance, medical and aerospace — you can’t just simply write code and then try it out. You have to prove that it is safe, and that proof takes the form of artifacts, documents, test results and so forth, which are then reviewed by an independent body but, eventually, a regulatory agency. In aerospace, that’s the FAA. In medical, it’s the FDA,” said VanderLeest.

Those proofs are difficult to obtain and can be proprietary, and thus can be sold, he said.

VanderLeest said that one can “play (with ARLX) for free, but eventually, you have to pay if you want to proceed with actual (commercial) fielding of a system in a safety-critical area.”

DornerWorks may also have a revenue stream in providing maintenance and support to users of ARLX.

VanderLeest joined DornerWorks in 2005 as a partner, when there were about a dozen employees. He said the firm now has a staff of about 70. The company is at 3445 Lake Eastbrook Blvd., Grand Rapids.

DornerWorks was founded in 2000 by David K. Dorner, who began working alone with just one customer, an aerospace firm. Annual sales two years ago were approaching $10 million.

Dorner was one of VanderLeest’s students at Calvin College.

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