Instead of ‘Black Box’ Recording of Critical Flight Data, Transmit the Information Real-Time

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For the fourth time since the jetliner’s 2009 crash into the ocean, an effort is being mounted to find the “black box.” The fact that investigators still want to read the recordings shows just how vital a role these data play in accident investigation. And this latest attempt to locate the crashproof case, long after its locator beacon’s batteries have died, points to the need for a new approach – broadcasting “black box” information in real time to a ground station. This technology exists and should be exploited.

Recall that Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, crashed 1 June 2009 in the South Atlantic. The aircraft departed controlled flight at 35,000 feet, most probably from ice in the pitot probes, which led to understated speed readings and a severe pitch-up. The crew was unable to regain control of the plummeting aircraft, and all 228 passengers and crew aboard were killed. (See Aviation Safety Journal, “Significant Regulatory & Related Activity” in this issue, and in August 2009 “Prompted by Crash, Airworthiness Directive Issued on Pitot Probes”)

Despite a fairly good idea of where Air France flight 447 went down, recovering the elusive 'black box' has been frustratedDespite a fairly good idea of where Air France flight 447 went down, recovering the elusive ‘black box’ has been frustrated

Some floating wreckage and bodies were recovered, but not the flight data recorder (FDR) or the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), whose information resides in a hardened orange case (not black) built to withstand the forces of impact, fire and water. The orange case is located in the tail of the aircraft and features a battery-powered locator that basically says, “I’m here.”

A French submarine and other vessels were dispatched early on to detect the locator beacon’s acoustic pinger signals, to no avail.

Searching for debrisSearching for debris

The aircraft did broadcast a series of ACARS (Airborne Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messages before it crashed that were picked up by the Air France operations center, but they tell only a partial and tantalizing story. What’s needed is the FDR and CVR information.

A number of companies are actively developing the concept of broadcasting FDR/CVR data in flight.

“The black box is obsolete; new technology is now available that would make the recovery and analysis of critical aircraft performance factors a much surer and faster task than it is today,” said Pierre Jeannot, emeritus director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“Satellite transmission is becoming rapidly more economical,” Jeannot added. “Transmission would begin only when abnormalities were recorded, limiting the amount of data that would have to be stored or analyzed by the centers.”

Regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should standardize the technology and require its use, he said, just as was done with the black box some 40 years ago.

Jim Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), is skeptical:

“While I agree that a more comprehensive approach to our black box requirements is imperative, there are substantial concerns with the satellite infrastructure that real-time data linking relies upon: insufficient satellite coverage; varying bandwidth capabilities … not to mention the myriad of confidentiality concerns with streaming data. During a crash, many unforeseen events occur with on-aircraft systems failing in an erratic manner – we can’t afford to count on a satellite telemetry system to operate correctly in such dire circumstances.”

Hall favors a deployable recorder as back up to the traditional “black box.” The deployable recorder would eject from the tail of a crashing airplane in the milliseconds before impact. In the case of Air France flight 447, the deployable recorder would float on the water, with a locator beacon broadcasting its location. (See Aviation Safety Journal, “The Case for Deployable Recorders”)

There are some factors which favor satellite telemetry of “black box” data (as an adjunct to actual recording on the airplane):

– The speed with which data can be multiplexed, digitized and transmitted.

– In the case of Air France flight 447, the fact that ACARS messages were transmitted and received points to recent advances in air-to-ground communications.

– Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) fitted to modern airplanes broadcast the signals of a crash site via satellite.

– The National Air and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been using similar data-dumping technology for years.

– The Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control system now in development relies on the speedy exchange of data between satellites, ground stations and airplanes.

One company, Star Navigation Systems Group of Toronto, Canada, has developed a system called ISMS, an acronym for In Flight Safety Monitoring System. Dubbed by the company as “The New Black Box™” it is specifically intended to address the Air France flight 447 case. ISMS has been sold to a number of corporate operators and at least one foreign airline, reportedly in India.

Broadcasting FDR/CVR information to a ground station is seen as a back up to the 'black box'Broadcasting FDR/CVR information to a ground station is seen as a back up to the ‘black box’

According to the company:

“The essential avionics and diagnostic information … is transmitted at operator defined intervals or triggered events, via satellite, to ground based installations in real time regardless of weather conditions. As well, [the] on-board hardware and software will independently analyze all selected incoming sensor and systems data and compare it with normal parameters. Any deviation is noted and an alert is sent out if necessary. In the event of multiple failures, the automated ‘Mayday’ feature commences an immediate ‘data dump’, sending as much information as bandwidth will allow. [The system] opens a ‘virtual window’ into the in-flight operation of a commercial aircraft …

“One of the main features of the new [system] is its built-in GPS [global positioning system] tracking software that enables more accurate tracking of an equipped airplane to the last known latitude and longitude. It also boasts improved accuracy and the ability to provide an aircraft’s exact altitude, heading and airspeed.”

ISMS is not meant to replace black boxes. Rather, the company says, “its use alongside them adds an extra level of safety that can be counted on to save time, money, and most importantly lives.”

Another schematic of the concept. Terrastar is synonymous with ISMSAnother schematic of the concept. Terrastar is synonymous with ISMS

If ACARS messages can be transmitted from the aircraft, via satellite, to the airline, one could envision an ISMS-type system not only broadcasting to the airline but to a national investigating body like the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board or the French BEA (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour le Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile). Instead of dispatching boats and submersibles to the crash scene, investigators could immediately begin the often arduous, occasionally foiled effort at data collation and analysis.

The company is already developing additional system capabilities. One is a Passenger Medical Monitoring System to assist airline crews in diagnosing and treating on-board passengers in need of immediate medical attention.

At the least, a pilot program with one or two U.S. airlines seems in order. JetBlue and a few other selected airlines are getting Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control equipment on their airplanes to convince airlines of the benefits. Some $4 million is being spent by the FAA to equip 35 JetBlue A320s. This largesse lathered upon NextGen introduction could perhaps be cost-compared to the expense of the fruitless searches for the elusive Air France flight 447 recorders.

The black box represents obsolescent technology. For air safety in the 21st century, a system like ISMS seems overdue.