Black Boxes and Coffin Corners

As searchers recover more wreckage from the Air France jetliner that crashed into the Atlantic last week, Miles O’Brien reports on the perils the jet faced as it flew headlong to its doom in a gauntlet of equatorial thunderstorms. In an interview with BoingBoing TV, O’Brien wonders why jets don’t transmit telemetry data all the time, moving the black box from the back of an aircraft, where it could be lost, crushed or incinerated, to computers safely on the ground. Any ideas, readers? [%comments]


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  1. Holme says:

    I assume it’s because the transmission can be cut off by accident especially when something goes terribly wrong (like a crash), which is when you need it the most.

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  2. Runninglad says:

    Not that I’m an expert on air travel but perhaps black boxes are clearer when reading two voices such as the pilots and the co-pilot. Also, there is always instances where airplanes when crashing lose all electronic singles, so transmitted data might be lost as the plain is in free fall.

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  3. Matt says:

    My first guess would be that there are security concerns. Second guess would be that implementation costs (in terms of money and difficulties to overcome) would outweigh perceived benefits.

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  4. Nerf says:

    Why not… do both?

    Why is this an either/or situation?

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  5. DNS says:

    It’s possible that, since most jets were designed years or decades ago, the systems haven’t been updated yet to take advantage of the advances in bandwidth and storage capacity needed to transmit that volume of data.

    And the black box remains necessary, since a failure in the communications or electrical systems would prevent telemetry information from getting out.

    Even so, I feel like it makes little sense not to do this. The expense would be minimal, since the communications and recording equipment is essentially already present. And I there’s a strong incentive for both airlines and manufacturers to stay on top of these problems.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    First; a lot of information from the plane is transmitted routinely, but not in all cases in all places.

    Second; the cockpit communication between the pilots is only stored in the blackbox, since the pilots really don’t want every private converstaion and word “on the air”. After 20 minutes or so this information is erased (there are various standards for this).

    Third; black box information is valuable since it contains information until impact. The VHF radios aircraft use are “line of sight”, and there is poor transmission at low altitudes. Typically aircraft also have emergency locator beacons monitored by satellites that transmit upon impact.

    Fourth; It could be done with a fleet of satellites and/or ground stations connected by internet. These things are changing all the time. This technology is always on the move, so yes…it is a pretty good idea.

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  7. Andrejs says:

    It’s trivial, Watson.. (-:

    Black boxes date back to the middle of last century. Back then there were no computers, remember? And extensive transmission of bulk quantities of data also was not possible. So my guess is that we are simply continuing to live with an old technology. To install a new one would be very costly and only reasonable to do either on all planes or none. Also that installation would require ground reception of all this data – can you even imagine there are tens of thousands of airplanes up in the skies at any given moment that would be transmitting all the time.

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  8. AVX says:

    My guess is that the Airlines are not too interested in doing this. As mentioned above, both black box and transmission of telemetric data should be done. Security concerns can be alleviated by doing a secure/encrypted transmission. Cost of implementing this should not be too much. However, Airlines do not like spending money so even a small implementation cost can be prohibitive to them. Besides, all that data getting into a database can lead to interesting reporting which if leaked might seem to indicate the dangers of flying an airplane. Plane crashes usually incriminate the airlines .. so they won’t have a good incentive to implement something which makes this incrimination all the more easy.
    A regulating body (FAA ..) should force this implementation. Telemetric data in a central database can probably reveal a wealth of information which can be good for safety of the airlines.

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