Bringing the cloud and embedded connectivity to aircraft black boxes

September 1, 2014 OpenSystems Media

Commercial aircraft black boxes use rudimentary technology that is much less powerful than the average smartphone. They aren't fit for purpose and there's little urgency in rectifying this, though many improvements are possible.

Such is the worldwide notoriety of recent infamous aviation tragedies, they need no introduction. For the most recent tragedy, MH17, the flight data recorder or "black box" was missing in action when I started drafting this article, though by completion is now thankfully in the hands of the correct authorities. However, with its time spent in unscrupulous hands, potential evidence tampering is a significant concern, an aspect I'll later detail.

The MH270 catastrophe and search still baffles the very latest technology and the most brilliant minds throughout the globe. Given the square mileage involved, searching "after the event" is a monumental task; given that almost all of this is deep ocean, "problematic" is an understatement. Detection equipment, such as radar and satellite imagery, evidently only goes so far. What is needed is embedded intelligence on the aircraft itself.

Given that early passenger jets had no event recording equipment at all, the black box (actually orange for visibility) we utilize today is a huge step forward. Modern passenger jets in fact utilize two black boxes, a 25-hour flight time statistical recording alongside a rolling two-hour recording of cockpit conversations. The boxes are built to survive crashes, fire, and deep-sea immersion, emitting a tracking frequency to facilitate locating the device for up to a month after, though recent events prove this isn't nearly enough.

The predominant issues with these now-archaic solutions are thus: the ease of locating them, the restrictive depth of information they record, the investigative delay of having to physically retrieve them, and the opportunity for these to fall either permanently into the wrong hands or the questionable validity of that data stored therein if returned (if they still contain usable data at all!).

You'd be safe to assume that the majority of passengers on both of these planes possessed smartphones, all of which you may be surprised to learn are many multitudes more powerful than the evidence-collecting black box. It's easy to retrospectively postulate that if even one MH270 passenger had GPS active and transmitting coordinates to a relevant authority, billions of dollars, and, far more importantly, lives could have been saved by immediately tracking their location to within a few meters – this is not the passenger's role of course, but should be the black box's.

The existing machinery does record altitude, airspeed, and bearing, but combining this existing information with GPS technology would provide the information necessary to recreate an exact, time-accurate 3D model of the entire flight from start to ill-fated finish, easily layered over Google Earth to show exact locations.

Coming back to my earlier mentioned investigative delays and potential evidence tampering, we only have to look at the scandalous behavior of those guarding the MH17 crash site to see that not everyone is keen on authorities establishing the truth. It seems obvious to me that both are easily addressed by utilizing the power of the cloud.

With modern mass storage technologies, live recording of the data of approximately 5,000 planes in the air simultaneously is more than feasible. Not only would live storage of this data on the cloud allow instantaneous access when any incidents do occur, it would immediately remove even the potential for any unscrupulous evidence tampering in one fell swoop.

I'm happy to concede that we're still not achieving constant 3G access, even in developed countries – this isn't a problem. I'm not arguing for the removal of the local black box from the equation; the data should persist to be stored locally and updated whenever available signal permits to the cloud. Remember, we're not talking about a lot of data here, all this data is merely numbers.

Maybe there's a staggered approach – the most critical data (GPS coordinates and time-stamps) are transmitted by "always on" but low data throughput methods that aren't signal dependent. The future could even offer live video recording, as many passenger cars now utilize for insurance purposes.

Yes, there are difficulties in retrofitting, but recent events have shown this cannot wait until the next range of passenger jets – when these things happen we need answers, immediately.

Rory Dear (Technical Contributor)
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