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Why Can’t Airlines Stream Black Box Data? (Ask Cranky)

This is more of a non-traditional Ask Cranky in that it’s been asked several times over the years, particularly in light of the Air France accident over the Atlantic when the thought was that the black boxes would never be found. The question? Why don’t airlines stream black box data so that they don’t have to actually find the box itself? It’s a great question, and there Ask Crankyare ways to do it. I spoke with Mark McWhirter, Business Development Coordinator at FLYHT about a product they have that does just that.

But first, let’s back up a little. What is a black box? There are actually two separate devices and neither of them are black. (It’d be a lot harder to find that way.) The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) is used to record conversation in the cockpit. It doesn’t record for very long and so there isn’t a ton of history on there; it just keeps recording over itself so the most recent data is available. Then there’s the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) which takes a bunch of different data points about what the airplane is doing and stores them. Newer versions collect more data points with better info, but these also don’t record for very long.

The idea is that if something goes wrong, you won’t need to know what happened a week ago. You’ll really need to know what happened in the final moments. The most important thing about these devices is that they need to be crash-hardened so that they can survive a massive wreck, and that they do. When they pulled the black boxes off the ocean floor from that Air France wreck long after the airplane went down, and they could actually recover the data, it was a testament to how good these things are. But, doesn’t that seem strange in this day and age that the data isn’t just sent down to the ground? It’s not as easy as it might seem.

With internet access becoming more and more available, you would think that would create more opportunity for streaming the data, but reliable inflight internet is still only in a small geographic subset of the world. In many places where you’d really want to have this capability the most (over oceans, mountains, etc.), it’s not cheap to get data off the airplane using more traditional methods. At upwards of $3 to $5 a minute or so, that can get expensive quickly. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but there are better ways.

FLYHT has a product called Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) which is actually quite smart. What is does is basically set up a recording device the plugs in and takes the feed between the aircraft and the data recorder. It stores anywhere from a week up to a month of data depending upon the aircraft, and the data can be removed at any time. This is useful for airlines that have FOQA programs and really work to analyze the data to improve safety.

The system uses the Iridium satellites to then communicate that data from anywhere in the world. On the legacy system, there would be a variety of triggers that would automatically send an alert back to base if something went wrong. These were the catastrophic types of events but normal issues that would want to be analyzed later. After Air France 447, however, there was a renewed interest in doing something more. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Now, if an emergency happens, there are three ways that the mechanism can be triggered. One is automated depending upon the parameters set, the other is by the pilots in the cockpit, and the third is from the airline on the ground. If one of those is triggered, then the system will not just send an alert but will immediately begin streaming all the black box data down to the ground. Within 30 seconds, that data can be viewed in a simulation with only a slight transmission delay. Looks like this:

FLYHTStream graphic

Kind of awesome, right? At $3 to $5 a minute, it’s only a concern if all data was being streamed throughout the flight. If it’s just during an emergency, that price is peanuts and worth a lot more than that.

Great idea, huh? And who is using this? Well, it’s not widely out there yet, at least not the streaming stuff. It’s being tested on two customer aircraft right now. One is a US-based 767, but they wouldn’t tell me anything more than that. They do hope, however, that there will be more to talk about it down the line. Having this kind of information streaming makes a ton of sense, and as data coverage gets better and cheaper it will soon become a no-brainer to have a system like this if it isn’t already.

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