The aviation industry is known for learning from tragedy, transforming cruel lessons from accidents into improvements that make flying safer. When Malaysian Airlines MH370 vanished in 2014, taking its flight data with it to the bottom of the ocean, airlines recognized that they needed a way to access recordings and flight data from a black box—no matter what.
The two competing ideas—ejecting the black boxes during a crash (complete with tracking sensor) or streaming their contents to the cloud—are now the center of a competition to see who can build the next-generation black box.
How a Black Box Works
The real name of the black box is “flight recorder.” The device, which is not a box and is often colored orange, captures voices in the cockpit and data from the airplane. This information is critical in determining what happened to an airplane even after its broken into many pieces. The first recorder was used on the de Havilland Comet in 1953, and they’ve been improved upon ever since.
Now, the next generation of black boxes is beginning to take shape.
In 2015 the EASA’s Commission, in charge of European flight safety, issued new black box regulations that put a 2021 deadline for adoption of these upgrades. Aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 59,500 pounds must be able to record at least 25 hours of cockpit conversation and somehow transmit the exact location of a downed aircraft. In addition, the regulation also required magnetic tape recorders be retired in favor of solid-state devices, a rule that took effect this January.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instituted a similar requirement for solid state recordings, but currently only demands 2 hours of cockpit recordings. The NTSB is leading the charge to increase that to 25 hours of Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) data, but so far the FAA has not done so.
This looming European deadline has aviation industry vendors vying for the best solution, and Honeywell has emerged as the champion of using connectivity to preserve flight data.
From the Clouds to the Cloud
In an age where passengers can stream live television to their seats, it seems like an easy task to create a system that pipes information from the airplane up to a satellite and down to a ground station that holds the data. Even more enticing, the system uses software upgrades to existing hardware.
But in aviation, nothing is ever that simple.
“It isn't quite as easy as just putting an app on your phone,” Amanda King, Honeywell’s vice president of connectivity hardware, tells VentrePlat. “Obviously we have to think through the implications and get things certified and make sure that we have all the right safety parameters for something that is connected.”
This new black box (which is neither black nor box-shaped) will be able to store more than 25 hours of recordings, exceeding the 2021 regulations. The data would be available in almost real time, and Honeywell says the new product, which has Curtiss-Wright as a development partner, should be ready for use by August 2020.
“Certainly, nobody could be happy about the situations that we faced in aerospace, things like Flight 370, but we are certainly grateful that we're able to offer something to the industry quickly that not only meets the regulations but goes above and beyond,” King says.
Search and Deploy
The deployable black box side has not been idle.
Airbus and BEA are testing a system that places the data recordings inside a panel in the aircraft’s outer skin. This panel would detach just before a water landing and activate a radio beacon. This would both preserve the information and tell responders and investigators exactly where the airplane went down.
This month, L3 revealed their entrant: the SRVIVR25 recorder. This is actually a family of recorders, with five different models that can be tailored to various aircraft. Some include 90-day underwater locator beacons, of obvious importance given the torturous experience of MH370. But one variant, designed by DRS Technologies Canada, is designed to float and broadcast its location with a dual-frequency transmitter. That model is made exclusively for the Airbus A350.
But the best solution may be using both kinds of systems. After all, redundancy is the way engineers ensure things work during a true emergency. But cost and weight are a huge concern for airlines, and industry where fuel efficiency is paramount. Also not every solution is needed. For example, an airline with few water routes would not want to invest in a floating black box.
Whoever wins in this battle for the black box, the end goal is clear: That no airplane crash should ever end in a mystery. This next-generation black box will ease the frustration of investigators while alleviating the agony of friends and family over the loss of a loved one.