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].
Author's Note: Should black box data be stored in the cloud?
Cost is not the only factor barring the streaming of flight data -- or, at least, cockpit voice recorder data. Pilot unions have long balked at the idea of making their voice recordings (or proposed video recordings) available to anyone beyond accident investigators, and even they tend only to read the transcripts.
Here's a fun fact you might not know: CVRs equip an erase button, which pilots press after completing a safe landing (they don't work during takeoff or flight). True, encrypted streaming could preserve the same privacy and then allow for deletion after landing, but would pilots see it that way?
Potentially, new regulations -- perhaps spurred by public outrage over some fresh disaster -- could drive some sort of FAA mandate. But unless forced, it seems far less likely that black boxes will stream to the cloud, and more likely that outside technologies will join them in an augmenting or assisting role.
- Adler, Jerry. "Banish the Black Box: There's a Better Way to Capture Plane Crash Data." Wired. June 28, 2011. (April 9, 2014) http://www.wired.com/2011/06/ff_blackboxes/
- Bachman, Justin. "Why Do Airlines Keep 'Black Box' Flight Data Trapped on Planes?" Bloomberg Businessweek. March 10, 2014. (April 11, 2014) http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-10/malaysia-air-crash-why-do-airlines-keep-black-box-flight-data-trapped-on-planes
- Demerjian, Dave. "Inside Aircraft Black Box Recorders." Wired. March 6, 2009. (April 7, 2014) http://www.wired.com/2009/03/cockpit-voice-r/
- Engber, Daniel. "Who Made That Black Box?" The New York Times Magazine. April 4, 2014. (April 7, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/magazine/who-made-that-black-box.html
- Kavi, Krishna. "Beyond the Black Box." IEEE Spectrum. July 30, 2010. (April 11, 2014) http://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/aviation/beyond-the-black-box/0
- Millward, David. "Calls for Aircraft Black Box Data to be Stored in the Cloud." The Telegraph (UK). March 27, 2014. (April 8, 2014) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/malaysia/10728025/Calls-for-aircraft-black-box-data-to-be-stored-in-the-cloud.html
- National Geographic Channel. "What is a Black Box?" (April 7, 2014) http://natgeotv.com/uk/air-crash-investigation/black-box
- Paur, Jason. "March 17, 1953: The Black Box is Born." Wired. March 17, 2010. (April 7, 2014) http://www.wired.com/2010/03/0317warren-invents-airplane-black-box/
- Wald, Matthew. "Q. and A. on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370." New York Times. March 11, 2014. (April 8, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/11/world/asia/q-and-a-on-the-disappearance-of-malaysia-airlines-flight-mh370.html?_r=1
- The Washington Post. "The Depth of the Problem." http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/world/the-depth-of-the-problem/931/