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ICSE 2021
Sat 22 - Sun 30 May 2021

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are an emerging computation platform known for their safety-critical need. In this paper, we conduct an empirical study on a widely used open-source UAV software framework, Paparazzi, with the goal of understanding the safety-critical concerns of UAV software from a bottom-up \emph{developer-in-the-field} perspective. We set our focus on the use of Bounding Functions (BFs), the runtime checks injected by Paparazzi developers on the range of variables. Through an in-depth analysis on BFs in the Paparazzi autopilot software, we found a large number of them (109 instances) are used to bound safety-critical variables essential to the cyber-physical nature of the UAV, such as its thrust, its speed, and its sensor values. The novel contributions of this study are two fold. First, we take a static approach to classify all BF instances, presenting a novel \emph{datatype-based} 5-category taxonomy with fine-grained insight on the role of BFs in ensuring the safety of UAV systems. Second, we dynamically evaluate the impact of the BF uses through a \emph{differential} approach, establishing the UAV behavioral difference with and without BFs. The two-pronged static and dynamic approach together illuminates a rarely studied design space of safety-cirtical UAV software systems.