Friday, March 25, 2011

Safety-Critical PLC Code

The benefits of automatic-application code generation are widely accepted within the software engineering community. These benefits include raised abstraction level of application programming, shorter product development time, lower maintenance costs, and increased code quality and consistency. Surprisingly, code generation concepts have not yet found wide acceptance and use in the field of programmable logic controller (PLC) software development. Software engineers at Kennedy Space Center recognized the need for PLC code generation while developing the new ground checkout and launch processing system, called the Launch Control System (LCS). Engineers developed a process and a prototype software tool that automatically translates a high-level representation or specification of application software into ladder logic that executes on a PLC.

All the computer hardware in the LCS is planned to be commercial off the shelf (COTS), including industrial controllers or PLCs that are connected to the sensors and end items out in the field. Most of the software in LCS is also planned to be COTS, with only small adapter software modules that must be developed in order to interface between the various COTS software products. A domain-specific language (DSL) is a programming language designed to perform tasks and to solve problems in a particular domain, such as ground processing of launch vehicles. The LCS engineers created a DSL for developing test sequences of ground checkout and launch operations of future launch vehicle and spacecraft elements, and they are developing a tabular specification format that uses the DSL keywords and functions familiar to the ground and flight system users. The tabular specification format, or tabular spec, allows most ground and flight system users to document how the application software is intended to function and requires little or no software programming knowledge or experience.

The LCS developers needed a mechanism or tool to translate application software from tabular spec format into PLC Code to execute on the PLC platforms out in the field. The functionality of some representative samples of tabular spec was manually coded into PLC ladder logic and tested with a field item simulator to verify the proper operation of the manually coded ladder logic. This manual process of conversion or translation from tabular spec representation to PLC ladder logic demonstrated that translation points or patterns existed between portions of the tabular spec and portions of the PLC ladder logic.

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