Beyond the Black Box: Accidents Needn't be so Mysterious

In an age of global satellite telecom, high-bandwidth video, WiFi in the sky, and fly-by-wire transoceanic airliners that virtually fly themselves while signaling fuel consumption and maintenance issues to the home office, isn’t it time to move beyond the black box?

For decades, piecing together the causes and contributing factors of an aviation tragedy has depended on retrieving a flight data recorder, a titanium-shielded device, often painted orange and housed in the tail of an aircraft where it is thought to have a better chance of surviving a mishap. But it’s not always retrievable or in good shape. Investigators of the crash of Air France Flight 447 doubt they’ll be able to get their hands on the black box of the ill-fated Airbus A330-200. It likely rests several miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean, beyond detection and the reach of anything but a submersible such as the Nautile.

The A330, among commercial aviation’s most sophisticated aircraft, already was capable of communicating via telemetry a stream of data important to those who maintain jets - telemetry that has provided the only clues so far, suggesting depressurization and electric system failure.

What about transmitting all the necessary information for reconstructing a tragedy in the air – cockpit communication, instrument readings, details of an plane’s hundreds of ongoing operations? Is it a bandwidth problem – simply too much to squeeze into the airwaves? Is there another technological barrier? Not at all. Engineers at companies such as L3 Communications and Honeywell Aerospace say it can be done – using existing know-how, and without overfilling available frequencies.

Turns out the challenge is financial.

"The crux of this issue is cost. High bandwidth communications off the aircraft, especially over remote/oceanic areas, is expensive," Honeywell spokesman Bill Reavis tells BusinessWeek.

International and U.S. aviation authorities, including the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, occasionally have talked in recent years about the potential for a backup to the venerable black box, and the FAA is examining new technologies by companies such as L3, which makes transponders, avionics and black boxes, that would, in effect, help “squitter” and squeeze more data into available radio spectrum.

"Can it be done? Absolutely. The technology exists," says one aviation industry insider.

At the FAA, authorities have envisioned such automatic reporting as part of a "Next Generation” air traffic control system that allows for detailed tracking of every plane no matter where it happens to be, and makes pilots aware of where other planes are. That would be a far cry from today's antiquated aviation reality in which commercial jetliners must follow prescribed highways in the sky, which aren't usually the shortest distance between departure and arrival points, and must be tracked with radar. As we noted in a September 2007 cover story, "incredible as it seems, family minivans with NavStar have more sophisticated location guidance than some aircraft." And as the Air France crash demonstrates, vast swaths of the earth are beyond the reach of radar and aircraft are, effectively, on their own.

Innovators at L3 and Honeywell say they can help build a kind of system that might render the black box obsolete, or at least render it a backup device - if only customers would be willing to pay for it. One approach being developed by L3 could require airlines to replace old transponders at a cost of $15,000 apiece - a substantial added cost to upgrade a large fleet at a time of economic uncertainty. Says Honeywell's Reavis: "So far no one’s been able to build a business case to support developing, implementing or requiring this type of system."

Even so, purveyors of such future systems say they may be able to build such a case because of the other real-time benefits to airlines in having more information about their aircraft as they fly.

To date, attempts to get beyond reliance on a single black box have gone nowhere. One example: U.S. legislation that would have required a second cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder, and emergency beacon on commercial airliners that would automatically get jettisoned from an aircraft in trouble. Such a requirement was referred to a congressional aviation subcommittee on infrastructure and transportation in 2005. The requirement never went farther.

NASA's Space Shuttle is a far cry from a commercial airliner, of course, but it does demonstrate how a post-black box emergency telemetry system might work. Downlinks transfer reams of data to flight controllers. Commercial aviation could benefit from a similar if less detailed version, bringing sophistication to the hunt for elusive answers that, when it comes to the search for the black box, has changed little in decades.

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