Friday, May 20, 2016

AIRLINES - The 'Black Box' is Obsolete

"Ban the Black Box:  We Have Better Ways to Capture Plane Crash Data" by Jerry Adler, Wired Magazine 6/28/2011


The black boxes were sitting on the ocean floor in what would have been plain sight, if there were any light at a depth of 12,800 feet.  They were guarded by silent corpses, the passengers and crew of an Airbus A330 that plummeted to the bottom of the Atlantic in June 2009.  For nearly two years, the boxes—not black, actually, but bright orange—had lain amid some of the most rugged undersea terrain in the world, 11,500-foot mountains rising from the ocean floor, covered with landslides and steep scarps.  Until the days in May when an advanced robotic submersible, the Remora 6000, brought the two black boxes from Air France flight 447 to the surface, they were among the world’s most sought-after artifacts, the keys to understanding why a state-of-the-art widebody jet fell out of the sky on a routine flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all 228 aboard.  Since no one knew the exact coordinates of the crash, the searchers had to extrapolate their grid from the plane’s last known location.  It took a team led by the king of undersea searchers, Dave Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to find the wreckage; Phoenix International, a deepwater recovery company, finally brought the recorders home.  Why did it take so long?  “You can find a needle in a haystack,” Gallo says, “but you have to find the haystack first.”

French accident investigators removed the memory cards, carefully dried them, plugged in the right cables, and soon announced that the boxes had preserved nearly all the data they had captured—two hours of audio recorded from the cockpit and a complete record of thousands of measurements taken between takeoff and the moment the Airbus crashed.  It was regarded, rightly, as a technological triumph.  Although voice and data recorders are built to withstand the most extreme conditions of shock, fire, and pressure—they get fired from an air cannon as part of the testing regimen—they are not designed to preserve data for so long at such depths.  The black boxes, built by Honeywell, had greatly exceeded their specifications.

But this elaborate and expensive undersea search could have been avoided; the technology has long existed that could make the recorders obsolete.  As the BEA, the French agency that investigates air accidents, struggled to explain the crash in two inconclusive interim reports in 2009, the question was already being asked:  If real-time stock quotes can be transmitted to anyone with a smartphone, why does the vital work of investigating an airplane crash still depend on reading physical memory chips that must be rescued from the wreckage?

The tragedy of Air France The tragedy of Air France 447 might have been on the minds of executives from Bombardier, the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, when they announced in 2010 that their new C-Series narrow-body jets, scheduled to come to market in 2013, would be the first commercial airliners built with the capability to transmit telemetry data instead of merely recording it.  The idea—to stream black box data in real time, either directly to a ground station or by satellite relay—isn’t new, even though there remains no consensus on whether to call it an uplink, which is conceptually accurate, or a downlink, which expresses the physical relationship of an airplane to the ground.

Bombardier is advertising the innovation not as a way to improve crash investigation—survivability of data after a crash isn’t something airplane manufacturers like to boast about—but as a way to give airlines a central database for routine information on airplane operations and mechanical performance.  At a minimum, the data could be stored securely as a backup to black boxes in the event of an accident.  One company, Calgary-based FLYHT AeroMechanical Services, already provides this service as an aftermarket retrofit; so far, smaller carriers and charters have been the main customers.

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