Why rely on flight data recorders?

Planes don’t often fall from the sky, but when they do, the impact is felt far and wide, and not just physically. These tragedies prompt people to demand answers, yet the air transport industry doesn’t seem to prepare itself adequately to provide those answers.

Note: I’m not an aviation professional. I’m merely a technophile who enjoys developing new ideas from existing tools. What follows is amateur conjecture on an important question.

The current problem

Sometimes the only way to find those answers is to retrieve the flight data recorder, which is sometimes called a “black box.” Should the aircraft fall in the middle of an ocean, that recorder may never be found. Even when a crash happens over land, the recorder may take a long time to find. In either case, it must be transported to a facility equipped to read the data in that recorder.

This begs the question: why does the air transport industry continue to rely on flight data recorders ?

The intriguing current technology setup

I got to thinking about this during a discussion that touched on Internet access offered on board aircraft in flight. In-flight Internet access means there’s a connection between the aircraft and the Internet. Then I started to list other aspects of the technology.

  • Every manufacturer, airline, regulatory agency and other organizations having anything to do with that aircraft’s flight is also connected to the Internet.
  • The aircraft funnels a wide range of flight data to the “black box.” This setup is tamper-proof while the aircraft is in flight.
  • Myriad computer systems automatically perform operations, like backups, without human intervention.

Possible alternative to flight data recorders

Could aircraft use anè Internet connection to send snapshots of that flight data every five minutes or so to organizations that concern themselves with that aircraft’s operations?

The technology required to create a device that does this already exists. It would be the same as creating a data backup.

The setup could be made as tamper-proof as the flight data recorder. Privacy measures to keep this data out of unauthorized hands are also widespread.

I don’t know how much data would go into a snapshot, but I’d be surprised if it was more than a megabyte. Sending a small file like this once every five minutes (pick your interval) over the Internet should be easy enough to do using existing technologies.

Who would receive this data?

Government authorities who would retrieve data from flight data recorders could maintain servers that receive real-time flight data snapshots.

Most snapshots would reside quietly on those servers. After a set period of time (perhaps several years after the flight), the data could be automatically deleted.

Should authorities suspect a problem with a flight, they can retrieve the last data snapshot from the aircraft within minutes, without waiting on the flight data recorder. They could then dispatch search and rescue teams to the aircraft’s last known location, which could be determined using data like its last known GPS coordinates, heading and speed.

Other uses for flight data

Government agencies would not be the only organizations that would want access to flight data in near-real time. Consider these examples.

  • Aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers may want data for ongoing improvement of their products. They may also create automated service alerts should the data indicate required service.
  • Airlines may want to track performance of their assets more closely.
  • Departure and arrival airports could stay informed on any issues affecting outbound and inbound flights.
  • Regulatory agencies can draw on more data to draft better rules.
  • Companies that finance the purchase of aircraft may want to track the reliability of the assets they have a stake in.

Closing thoughts

Flight data recorders are mythologized as being indestructible. But their durability means little if they sit at the bottom of some ocean, never to be found.

What matters is not the recorder, but the data it holds. Maybe it’s time to safeguard that data using currently available tools.

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