Why Stop There?

Moving black box data off planes could open up other outside-the-box options. Computer programs might monitor aircraft telemetry, helping airlines spot problems that onboard instruments might miss and aiding aircraft in distress. Ground-based pilots might control planes remotely, like oversized drones, whether during emergencies or as part of a fleet of unmanned cargo haulers [source: Adler; Kavi].

A New Deal for FDRs?

Now that we've peeked inside the box, let's look at a few likely setups for storing data from cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs) on remote servers.

Using top-mounted antennas, high-flying planes could link with satellites, while lower-flying craft could send data to ground stations. The satellite bandwidth and coverage for such a system already exist (or soon will); the software and hardware infrastructure needed for switching among various cell towers and satellites is another matter [sources: Adler; Kavi].

As for delivery, airlines have plenty of options besides streaming. The system could save bandwidth by sending intermittent updates, transmitting in bursts or only updating parameters that showed significant change. Planes could still switch to a higher bit rate during takeoffs, landings and emergencies. In the latter case, such a system could provide early hints as to what went wrong and ping the plane's last position. Whatever the system, transmitting black box data will require a carefully orchestrated server and communications backbone able to dole out bandwidth amid an ever-shifting landscape of flight conditions, schedules and emergencies. Airlines would likely run their own servers [sources: Adler; Kavi].

In the short term, tech already on the market offers simpler ways to improve on black boxes. Consider the humble MP3 player. According to U.S. aircraft company LoPresti Speed Merchants, which plans to add the devices as FDRs on its Fury piston aircraft, the right software could enable such devices to record more than 500 hours of flight data [source: National Geographic].

The bottom line is that data storage may be cheaper than a SkyMall catalogue, but satellite bandwidth is not. According to one 2002 study, a U.S. airline with global stops would be on the hook for $300 million per year to transmit all of its flight data -- and that's assuming that future satellite transmission costs drop to half their current rates. Meanwhile, most airplane crashes occur during takeoffs or landings -- cases in which retrieving a black box involves spotting it, walking over and picking it up. Searchers generally recover them, even after high-impact crashes. As of 2011, the last American or European exception to this rule occurred in the planes vaporized during the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Airlines, already operating within margins thinner than an airplane courtesy blanket, will likely balk at such a price tag when they perceive such a limited need [sources: Adler; Bachman].

In the end, barring an unlikely Federal Aviation Administration mandate, airlines must weigh such concerns against the value of saving future lives, improving efficiency by mining amassed flight data, and resolving billion-dollar lawsuits -- advantageously or not -- through backups of vital data [sources: Adler; Kavi; Wald].