Air travel has left an indelible mark upon the 20th century. Before the advent of the internet, the worldwide web that brought disparate people and cultures together was composed of flight paths. The face of international conflict was changed by the bombing raids of the Second World War, and some have even argued that the devastation wrought from the skies then is what kept the Cold War cold. But the 20th century also continues to exercise an influence on flying today, with the recent disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 highlighting the archaic nature of safety equipment aboard most planes.
The black box is neither black nor singular
The "black box" is an iconic part of any airliner’s standard electronic kit, but it’s notoriously misunderstood. For starters, it is neither black nor singular. Flight regulations require every commercial airliner to carry two pieces of recording equipment, both bright orange in color so as to be more easily identifiable when searching a wreckage. One is the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), which records the last two hours of conversation between the pilots and air controllers, and the other is the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), which keeps track of detailed flight parameters for 25 hours. Both are designed to withstand enormous environmental pressures — including impacts generating up to 3,400 Gs and fires reaching temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius — and together usually provide an accurate picture of what went wrong during a flight disaster. But they could be so much better.
The first black box prototype was built in the 1950s and could store four hours of speech and instrument-panel data. It took some time for its utility to be widely appreciated and for data recorders to be universally adopted, but the legal framework continues to lag behind that original device’s most basic capabilities. Until recently, US regulators only required the last 30 minutes of cockpit audio before a crash to be recorded, and even the present two-hour stipulation falls short of what we were capable of half a century ago. The data gathering and storage methods have certainly advanced since then, but at their core flight recorders employ flash memory just like you’ll find in your phone or tablet.
Flight MH370 is thought to have flown on for several hours after disappearing from radar screens on March 8th, a fact that starkly underlines the inadequacy of having voice-recording equipment that accounts for only the last two.
Dave Warren, the inventor of the original black box, took his inspiration from the first personal audio recorders, imagining how helpful it would be to accident investigators if a passenger on board happened to be carrying one. He then extended that thought to the cockpit. Applying the same reasoning to present-day technology would have you expecting multiple webcam feeds in the cockpit and potentially along the aisles, all covering the full duration of the flight rather than an arbitrary period before disaster.
"Sheer institutional inertia" is holding progress back
Companies like L-3 Communications, supplier of the widely used Fairchild FDRs, anticipate that cockpit video recording is only "a few years away," but the question has to be asked about why it’s not being used already. One of the reasons is described as "sheer institutional inertia" by Professor Krishna Kavi of the University of North Texas. He recalls how in 2000, in the wake of an infamous EgyptAir crash, the FAA attempted to mandate cockpit cameras but was thwarted by pilot unions fearful of excessive oversight.
Another compelling answer may simply be cost. Gary Kelly, CEO of budget American carrier Southwest Airlines, argues that after 9/11 "we were all low-fare carriers." In an opinion piece published this week, Kelly paints a picture of razor-thin profit margins at the start of the last decade that forced airlines to shave every expenditure down to a minimum. This goes some way to explaining why plane operators may be reluctant to make fresh investments in upgrading their CVR equipment. It’s easier to sell people on the benefits of a more sophisticated in-flight entertainment system than it is to convince them that the plane they’re flying on would make other flights safer should it ever crash.
How about using a black cloud instead?
The most direct solution to an uneager industry is government intervention. It wasn’t long after the Malaysian flight’s disappearance that North Carolina Congressman David Price reintroduced a bill to make ejectable black boxes a compulsory part of airplane equipment. Unlike the heavy boxes that presently sink to the ocean floor along with the rest of the plane, Price’s recorders would eject upon impact and float on the water’s surface — and the technology's already proven, having been used by the US Navy for years.
More ambitious alternatives also exist, such as Professor Kavi’s glass box proposal. Embracing the modern trend for putting everything in the digital cloud, Kavi suggests that flight data could be transmitted in real time to locations on the ground or overhead satellites. This way, all the crucial information about pilot inputs, altitude, environmental conditions, and system operations would be immediately available when required. While some small bursts of data are already transmitted by planes, sending out comprehensive FDR information sets appears unfeasible given the enormous number of planes in the air at any one time. Kavi is conscious of that limitation, but believes it can be negotiated by being selective with which data to transmit — such as when parameter readings are drastically out of the expected range. A Canadian company by the name of Flyht Aerospace Solutions aims to provide a service along these lines with its Automated Flight Information System, but the installation cost of $100,000 per plane is likely a big reason for why it hasn’t seen wide adoption. As Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the US Department of Transportation, tells CNN, airlines "will simply not add additional safety measures unless mandated by the federal government."
In the absence of a perfect solution that satisfies both safety concerns and economic demands, it’ll be up to regulators and legislators to determine where to strike the right balance. The present search for flight MH370 shows, however, that we can’t afford to keep using last century’s black box technology. Airline passengers would all feel (and be) much safer when the technical capabilities of their smartphones no longer outstrip those of the equipment intended to ensure their safety.