Diagram of a basic black box

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Thinking Inside the Box

Before we throw the black box out with the bathwater, let's look at what factors have made the device such a success since its inception.

First, let's clear up a few problems with the name: A black box is not black, it's often not a box and it contains more than one recording device (although they occupy a single, rugged unit). Even before airline standards required an easier-to-spot orange or yellow paint job, Boeing planes packed theirs in yellow spheres, and British planes carried theirs in so-called "Red Eggs." Today, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations still allow spherical, cylindrical and domed recorders, as long as they're big enough to pick out of a plane's debris [source: Engber].

Black boxes have come a long way since 1953, when Australian researcher David Warren ginned up his "Flight Memory Unit" to probe frequent crashes of the world's first jet-powered airliner, the De Havilland Comet. From wire and foil recorders that captured only a handful of flight data, they moved on to magnetic tape and, today, a solid-state digital recorder. This medium, a relative of computer flash memory or a camera's SD card, allows for easier inspection, faster downloads and better survival chances in moisture and heat. Now standard equipment in all but the smallest planes, black boxes run on a stand-alone battery so that they can function during aircraft power problems [sources: Adler; Demerjian; Kavi; Paur].

With survival paramount, both voice and data recorders are insulated and armored, rated to endure 2,030 F (1,110 C) fires, several hours of 500 F (260 C) heat, piercings, exposure to salt water, 20,000-foot (6,096-meter) sea pressures, impacts approaching 270 knots (311 mph or 500 kph) and forces reaching 3,400 g's. To further maximize crash impact survival, many occupy the plane's tail section and/or are capable of self-ejecting. Emergency 30-day ultrasonic beacons, which can signal from depths of 14,000 feet (4,270 meters), aid in deep-sea retrieval [sources: Adler; Demerjian; Kavi; National Geographic; Paur; Wald].

Flight data transmission as a concept dates back decades. NASA already uses an internally developed system to transmit flight and voice data, and some commercial planes send technical data to maintenance centers. GPS-equipped planes ping nearby satellites on the hour, much as cell phones check in with local cell towers for call-routing purposes. Searchers have used this fact to get a rough fix on downed planes, particularly in the ocean where radar does not reach, but its usefulness is limited [sources: Adler; Demerjian; Kavi; Wald].

All of which suggests that the pieces are at least in place if authorities decide to pursue streaming data and/or remote storage. As it turns out, though, that's a pretty big "if."