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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30 comments on “Why Can’t Airlines Stream Black Box Data? (Ask Cranky)

  1. Sounds interesting. If it can transmit to the ground at anytime, then it also sounds like it could be used for an inflight machanical issue. Machanics on the ground could see in almost real time what was going on and maybe come up with a fix or a faster fix.

    Does anyone see pilot unions complaining about the “……and the third is from the airline on the ground.” part of this? Pilots will start complaining that the airline will be using it to see how they are ‘driving’. Sort of like driving behind a delivery truck with a sign on the back that say “How’s my driving” and it gives an 800-number to call.

  2. Good idea, could have an action like a stall warning trigger the data dump or if altitude change >+/-2000fpm…

  3. I wonder if this could be combined with a GPS navigation system / satellite based Wi-Fi network both to spread out the overall costs and provide an exact location when trouble does occur. If this is like most things electronic, the cost will come down over time. I haven’t seen the Iridium satellites mentioned for quite a while. It’s good to see they’re still functioning and that the project has produced some benefits From what I remember it had some teething issues.

    1. Iridium went bankrupt, and almost had to deorbit the satellites per the bankruptcy court’s orders, but some others stepped in and with a big purchase of airtime from the Navy its continued..

      The previous management is completely off the property.

  4. This is a great idea, but you can also have the airline ops monitor the flight real time to be able to react if there was an emergency. But the unions will find a way to muck this all up. ALPA will file greivances, the electricians will say they have to have a man on 24 hours incase of an electric issue, and we will need a whole new career path as a in flight monitoring professional.

    1. Monitoring every flight real time would just cost too much money.

      I can see the ALPA having some concerns, but hopefully they just agree to some rational restrictions, such as notification when its activated, and a clear set of guidelines when its activated…

  5. You would think that the companies that provide internet service in the air would be willing to let airlines transmit safety data without charging such ridiculous rates. Just another example of corporate greed in America. I hate to bring up the idea, but maybe the FAA needs a regulation on this (just like regulations requiring 911 calls to be free, for example).

    1. Well, the coverage area is pretty small when it comes to global internet service in flight right now, so it’s not really a big issue just yet. Eventually, however, it might be good to regulate something like this to encourage the transmission of critical data during emergencies.

    2. Well, the in flight internet companies (on the satellite site) lease transponders from the satellite owners. If its simply a time based lease, they’d probably be more than willing to have a continual feed that is uploaded, even if they were uploading it at the lowest priority. (No squawking, the lowest priority still would get transmitted reasonably quickly, most folks internet browsing is heavy on the download, and in any case has lots of moments that nothing is getting uploaded.)

      Its probably the work to integrate the systems that the WiFi folks are not willing to undertake at the moment. I wonder if the next set of black boxes will come with a wifi module to transmit stuff off the airplane..

  6. Soon after the accident, reports of ACARS messages sent automatically from the aircraft gave some significant clues. Is it possible to use this system to supply more information in real time?

    1. Yes, absolutely. With a live streaming black box, there will be excellent information in real time, or with a very slight delay.

  7. Response to David’s comment on August 9: you’re right. Our Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) box that enables FLYHTStream is primarily used by our customers to track and monitor their aircraft for maintenance. Different parameters can be measured and if an abnormal event occurs the maintenance staff are notified immediately. This has saves our customers money because they can fix the issue when it occurs instead of waiting for regularly scheduled maintenance or until there is an issue with the aircraft.
    In regard to your pilot monitoring question, there is an agreement with the pilots and the airline on what can and cannot be transmitted and we abide by those agreements. The advantage of AFIRS is that it is programmable by aircraft what is sent, when and by whose permission. FLYHTStream can be activated by the pilot if they wish so there is no outside agent or the aircraft itself that can trigger it if they want that option. We are very cautious to honor the pilot/airline agreements.

  8. In response to DesertGhost from August 9: the AFIRS system runs through the Iridium Satellite network, as you mentioned, and yes there is a program for our customers to see where their aircraft are at all times. They can also choose different flight following reporting times. Our standard flight following messages are sent every 5 minutes, though an airline can change that to as short or long a timeframe as they want. They can receive a position report every 30 seconds if they want that information. We do charge for that function, though it’s a very reasonable price.

  9. This sounds terrific! Is the company providing this publicly traded? Please give information as it sounds like a great investment.

    1. Yes a company called STAR NAVIGATION has real time streaming, and is publically traded on the TSX, as SNA

  10. Star Navigation Systems Group Ltd. has developed the ISMSTM in-flight safety monitoring system – the first system in the world to feature in-flight data monitoring and diagnostics with a “real-time” secure connection between aircraft and ground, made possible through current technology and satellite transmission

    •Star Navigation has a proven real time monitoring system that will replace Black Box Technology in Airplanes.
    •EADS/Astrium approached Star Navigation to pursue selling their technology.
    •Real time monitoring is from power on to power off in all planes, it is a virtual window into the cockpit from ground operations.
    •Real time monitoring of fuel can help save up to $1.2 Million per plane in annual fuel savings.
    •Real Time monitoring allows for parts on demand inventory replacement
    •AS9100 Certification paves way for Military Applications.

  11. I looked into both companies and it looks to me like Aeromechanical is the better of the two. They have had lots of sales and they are rolling out a new version this fall, for which it seems they have a number of pre-orders. I may be wrong but it doesn’t look like Star has any sales.

    1. Yes, Star has partnered with the biggest aviation company in the world, EADS and ASTRIUM who did their due dilligence and looked at every company available before signing the contract with STAR.
      AeroMechanical does have sales, but they are catered to the smaller airplanes and there have been no reports on the success of their system. Star on the other hand have access to the entire Airbus fleet and have the patent to this technology, which Astrium recognizes.
      In a few years, AMA will be left finding small customers to make money, whereas, star’s system will sell for itself, once implemented.

  12. Pilots are not going to want this. The data could be used by management to second guess pilot decisions. This will add more stress to an already high stress low pay occupation.

  13. If Star signed a contract with the biggest aviation in the world to replace the black box how come its not all over the news?

  14. If this contract is so wonderful why is the market unimpressed? You cannot blame the shaky market, since the pps went down before the currnet craziness.

  15. The pilot protection arraingement sounds wonderfull, but. How about the North America Airlines Captain who was fired because of his departure from Pope AFB. He was nailed by, you guessed it, AFIRS. How about that one FLYHT? Looks like your arraingement didn’t work.

  16. Why does the data have to be streamed from the plane? Why can’t it be accessed from the black box itself after the crash? If they can send telemetry from Mars, then surely they can develop a system to broadcast data from the bottom of the ocean. I mean, black boxes already broadcast their locating signals, right? To me, the way it’s done it now is about as sensible as writing an email on your computer and then carrying the whole computer to the recipient so he can read it.

  17. If the data streaming system were installed in the Malasia Air 370, we would not be waiting to find the missing plane much less its black boxes.
    Without the knowledge of what happened to that 777, the traveling public is at risk.

    Let’s see, or demand, that this wireless system be incorporated into every passenger airliner carrying over a minimum of 20 passengers.

    Also I would like to see the transponder on-off switch disappear from the cockpit. No need for anyone to know how to disable it, kind of like “LoJack” in cars. Unless the pilot squawks on a particular frequency, it should default on 1200. Transponder comes on automatically with engine startup up and off with shut down.
    Let’s get flight safety into the 21st century.

    1. The on-off switch for transponders is very important. Pilots need to be able to turn off the transponder so they don’t accidentally squak the code that they’ve been hijacked or something else.

      Additionally, I’ve read that it is important for them to be able to turn systems on the plane off to troubleshoot, etc.

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