Beacons Tripling Battery Life Too Late for Plane Search

The battery life for beacons signaling from submerged aircraft will be increased threefold next year, too late for searchers running out of time to find Malaysian Air Flight 370 before its electronic pulses fade out.

U.S. regulators set a 90-day standard for pingers attached to flight recorders after it took almost two years to find the Air France jet that plunged into the South Atlantic in 2009. The rule covers new planes starting in March 2015, and the United Nations may require longer-range beacons in 2018.

Flight 370’s disappearance into the Indian Ocean shows the technology can’t arrive fast enough. With the mystery now in its 20th day, battery-powered pingers on the Boeing Co. 777’s black boxes will be almost exhausted when a U.S. Navy underwater sensor system is towed to the search zone by April 5 -- and investigators still don’t know yet where to point the device.

“They have to continue searching for the wreckage no matter what it takes,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “You can’t have a cloud potentially hanging over a product such as the 777 -- we have to know what happened.”

The flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders may offer the the only definitive information about why Flight 370 diverted from its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route, reversed course and then flew for hours into one of the most-remote parts of the Indian Ocean. On board were 239 passengers and crew members.

Over-Water Flights

While better engineering and training are cutting air-accident rates, the ability to find planes in deep waters is more critical than ever as airlines add long-haul flights, said George Hamlin, a former executive at planemaker Airbus who now runs Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia.

“You have many more flights virtually everywhere and a lot of them are on routes that weren’t being flown a number of years ago,” Hamlin said. “There is more and more of this sort of flying.”

Longer-lived batteries to keep signals pulsing from the black boxes would give searchers more time to calculate likely splashdown zones and deploy the Royal Australian Navy ship Ocean Shield operating the U.S.’s towed pinger locator. Flight 370’s pingers can send a signal as far as about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) in ideal sea conditions, according to the manufacturer, Dukane Seacom.

Search Zone

Yesterday’s planned search zone alone covered 80,000 square kilometers, and investigators have said the black boxes may be on the seabed hundreds of kilometers from any debris found on the surface.

Non-rechargeable lithium batteries like those on Flight 370’s pingers usually last three to five days longer than the 30-day specification at full signal power, according to President Anish Patel of Dukane Seacom, a unit of Hollywood, Florida-based Heico Corp. After that, the signal will fade as the batteries weaken and then go dead within days, Patel said.

“It becomes a piece of ballast pretty quickly,” he said.

Pingers with a 90-day lifespan are the same size and are now in use by other customers, including speedboat racers who put them in their pockets in case of a fatal crash, said Justin Manley, director of business development for manufacturer Teledyne Benthos, a unit of Thousand Oaks, California-based Teledyne Technologies Inc.

“Extended battery life on today’s pingers is basically ready for prime time,” Manley said. “It’s not a technology problem.”

FAA Standard

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has ordered that all underwater locator beacons manufactured from March 2015 have the ability to transmit for 90 days. By 2020, all 30-day beacons must be replaced, the U.S. regulator said in an e-mail.

“What drove that requirement was Air France 447,” Patel said. While surface debris was found within days of the accident, locating the wreckage required robot submarines and months of searching because the black-box pingers had long since gone dead.

“Malaysia Air 370 makes the second compelling case in recent memory that these 30-day batteries should have been replaced years ago and should be replaced in a more expedited basis,” said former NTSB official Goelz, who is now a senior vice president at Washington-based lobbying and consulting firm O’Neill & Associates.

Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association airline trade group, said he didn’t have an immediate comment yesterday on the pace of industry change.

Lower Frequencies

Beacons emitting a more-powerful signal are due later this decade, too. Sending pulses at lower frequencies that travel farther underwater, these units could be detected from as far away as 10 miles in good sea conditions, according to Patel.

The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization has decided that the beacons should be fitted to commercial aircraft no later than at the beginning of 2018, Anthony Philbin, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

While the FAA has issued technical standards for a low-frequency beacon, the agency doesn’t have a position on mandating such equipment, according to an e-mailed statement.

ICAO is reviewing a recommendation by France’s aviation-safety authority for flight recorders that would detach in a water impact and float to the surface for easier location, according to Philbin, the spokesman.

Teledyne Benthos’s Manley said oceanographic technology also could be used to extend searchers’ ability to locate long-submerged black boxes.

Awaiting Sonar

So-called acoustic releases -- used by scientists to retrieve equipment from the seabed -- carry transponders that stay dormant until receiving a sonar signal. They can last as long as four years, and the pulses they emit are more precise than those from today’s pingers, Manley said.

The units would be about the same size and weight as pingers, and have comparable range. One drawback: the expense. A pinger costs about $500 to $600, only about a third as much as one of the transponder-equipped units.

Efforts to find Flight 370’s recorders go beyond solving a mystery and offering an explanation for the tragedy to family members of the passengers and crew, said Hamlin, the consultant.

“We need to know so we can hopefully take measures to prevent what caused this to occur.” Hamlin said.

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