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Streaming Flight Data…Creating An Aerial Central Nervous System To Save Lives

06/06/2009

In this Web 3.0 age, why must we rely on short bursts of data from a downed airliner to help us piece together what happened and learn how to prevent future tragedies?

In the fatal moments before Air France Flight 447 became aviation history, at least 24 automatic messages received at the Air France operation headquarters in Paris reportedly signaled electrical failure and loss of cabin pressure. Except for these tiny puzzle pieces, a much wider range of information is contained in the submerged flight data recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), otherwise known as “black boxes.” If ever retrieved from their ocean resting place, it may be too late to learn the secrets within. Black boxes can be limited in their usefulness, as seen in the AP video (below) about a Qantas mishap in 2008.

The ill-fated flight emitted the short messages by means of the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which transmits digital data to ground stations by satellite or radio signals. The automated signaling system is built upon 1978 technology. According to AviationWeek.com on June 5, “ACARS content only shows what systems and computers malfunctioned, but there’s no information yet available about what actually happened to important parameters such as airspeed, altitude or pitch angle during the last few minutes of the flight.”

A race against the calendar is underway by an international team of investigators, which includes use of a French nuclear submarine, to find the flight data and voice recorders. They are looking for a “pinger” which emits signals to help locate the data units, but the signal may last only 30 days from the time it starts. The signal is the path to over 400 pieces of information contained within the black boxes.

Introduced in the 1950’s, flight data recorders have been improved to a new generation of digital flight data acquisition units. Over time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required more data be captured, such as time, altitude, airspeed, vertical acceleration, heading, time of radio transmissions, pitch and roll attitude, longitudinal acceleration, control column or pitch control surface position and engine thrust. Read a history of flight data recorders and FAA requirements from Boeing.com. To improve recovery of vital information, proposals for deployable FDR’s and CVR’s, designed to avoid the impact of the crash, have been made. See National Transportation Safety Board 1999 article by P. Robert Austin. Cockpit video recorders have also been proposed to enhance safety, but no one is suggesting that such images are available from flight 447.

We have come too far to accept outmoded technology in modern aircraft. As amazing as black box technology has become, the process of collecting reliable system metrics requires the application of new approaches. Why should future lives depend upon whether or not marine operations can retrieve two orange (correct, they are not black) units from the bottom of one of the deepest sea beds within a 30 day period?

The quest for information from 447 is telling. To be sure, about 4 minutes of limited information was transmitted from the plane as it descended into the ocean. These “bursts” of information are just not enough to pinpoint a cause. If short and one dimensional automated messages can be emitted from an airliner in trouble, why can’t airlines deploy multi-data systems to emit messages that wirelessly stream, as events unfold, from a plane in imminent peril?  It can be done, and it must.

If this were a perfect world, all commercial airplanes would be constantly streaming data to huge super computers which would analyze data to look for trends and early warning signs of forthcoming technical and mechanical problems, aircraft by aircraft. It would be a sort of living history of each plane, its operations and performance. In short, such a system would involve live “aviation analytics” instead of the current “Twitter” approach to short, limited messages that give only a hint as to what transpired.

This is not a new concept. NASA published a report in January, 2000 on a “data turbine” designed to provide “constantly updated information about an aircraft and its surroundings.” Part of the space agency’s Aviation Safety Program, the system was designed to signal when something indicated a potential safety hazard. It was also designed to be one step beyond the traditional black box technology as it allowed “immediate access to information that may or may not be recoverable from a flight data recorder following an aircraft crash.” The system was to be tested in 2001 with a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. This exciting technology has not been deployed on commercial aircraft, and it is too late for the lost souls on the Airbus A330-200 in the Atlantic, which was delivered to Air France in April, 2005. 

The problem, of course, is cost and scale. With thousands of planes with their avionic hearts pulsating in the skies every minute…worldwide…it might be considered “pie in the sky” thinking to implement such a central nervous system of constant virtual flight data information. Considering how many satellites, data centers, computers, software upgrades would be involved, and how much data would be streaming, along with the expense of doing so, we need to lower expectations. We can, nonetheless, still markedly improve in-flight data technology for mid and post flight analysis. At the same time, the data streaming should be two-way. Shockingly, according to one published report on June 5, the Air France crew had no way to receive real-time weather data from satellites.

What if on-board streaming flight and pilot data could be activated by the crew as soon as a problem manifests itself or at the slightest hint of a potential concern? It could be broadcast from the aircraft to satellite and land-based receivers, monitored and recorded in real-time. Such a system would not be perfect, as it would be dependent upon human activation and might not capture the proximate cause of the incident. However, in those situations where the orange boxes were not recovered the data would provide a much greater wealth of information than is available when they cannot be found or recovered. Instead of constantly monitoring of thousands of aircraft, only those airplanes in trouble would use this kind of network and bandwidth. On-board recorders could still be used, but their captured data would  longer be the sole source of in-flight clues of what went wrong.

Obviously, I am not a flight engineer or an FAA technician. I’m just a passenger who appreciates the opportunities presented by this terabyte age. We are all familiar with the horrifying stories of passengers in September, 2001, talking on their cell phones before their flights tragically ended. They reported what was happening, live, in crucial minutes. If passengers can report information via cell phone technology, sophisticated flight decks can do the same at a higher technological level. We can expand on the passenger cell phone example and integrate collectible flight data into “as it happens” reporting to convey valuable information about malfunctions and errors.

If we can do this with GM’s Onstar (satellite linked system for terrestrial vehicles) we can do it in the troposphere. Certainly, we can move past reliance upon the collection of vital aerial information stored on hard to find and limiting boxes which merely record history and do not afford proactive opportunities to avoid heart breaking disasters.

Black boxes save lives because we learn from them. All we need is the will to develop and deploy a new generation of aircraft reporting technology. In so doing, we will save countless lives and Air France Flight 447 will leave a legacy of safety improvement for future generations of crews and passengers.

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