August 18, 2005 12:12 PM PDT

Tech beyond black boxes? It just won't fly

Greek investigators struggling to determine the cause of this week's deadly airplane crash have encountered an unexpected setback: One of the black boxes with vital flight data has not been recovered, and the other may be damaged.

A second problem in the search for clues in the mountains north of Athens lies in the design of the separate cockpit voice recorder, which stores only the last 30 minutes of audio. Because the Helios Airways flight apparently flew for hours after the pilots were disabled, the most valuable information may have been overwritten.

In a digital era where airplanes are jammed with telephones, satellite TV and Wi-Fi wireless links, relying on physical black boxes that can be lost or incinerated seems almost outmoded. So why don't commercial flights beam important data back to the ground every few microseconds?

Krishna Kavi, chairman of the computer science and engineering department at the University of North Texas, says that piggybacking an air-to-ground connection on top of an existing transmission link is feasible.

"You don't need a very expensive communication network to relay information from plane to ground," said Kavi, who has written about black box design. "If you can use a cell phone, recorders should be able to transmit that information to an airline company."

There are good reasons for air-to-ground streaming. If an in-flight recorder is lost or destroyed, the additional precaution of backing up flight data on the ground would help investigators reconstruct what happened.

An air-to-ground link also would permit information to be retained much longer; digital flight data recorders on current Boeing planes store data for 25 hours, and cockpit voice recorders store between 30 minutes and 2 hours. And searching for black boxes with damaged radio beacons is frustrating and expensive.

The federal government has never required air-to-ground data feeds, primarily because officials believe the cost of a reliable system remains too high.

"We feel our money's better spent making the recorders so they will survive, they can be found, and provide the economically reliable data that we need," said James Cash, chief of the vehicle recorder division at the National Transportation Safety Board. "I don't think you could ever make the economic justification that a real-time download is economically feasible to impose on the industry."

Other reasons include the challenge of engineering a system that could transmit even when the plane is in an unusual flight attitude--such as inverted or in a dive--instead of in normal flight. The NTSB says it's aware of only three crashes, not counting the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in which the flight data recorders were not recovered.

Really orange, not black
Dave Warren's interest in recording music led to the creation of the original black box in the mid-1950s.

An engineer at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, Warren was helping to investigate the cause of an airplane crash that had no witnesses. He realized that reconstructing what happened would be easier if the information was stored onboard.

"Dave then recalled the world's first miniature (tape) recorder that he had recently seen at a trade fair," according to a history prepared by the Australian government. "Suddenly he could visualize such a recorder placed in all aircraft, continually recording details and able to be recovered after a crash."

black boxes

Today's black boxes--a term that encompasses the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder--are required on commercial airliners and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment. To aid in recovery, both are painted orange.

They're designed to survive the fiery temperatures and intense pressures of a crash. Regulations require that the boxes be resistant to 5,000 pounds of pressure, temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and deep sea pressure of 20,000 feet. (Similar black boxes are popping up in cars too.)

Flight data recorders are plugged into the aircraft's main data bus, which lets them record up to 88 different forms of information such as altitude, airspeed, and the position of the stick used by pilots to control the plane's elevator and ailerons.

The data they safeguard can yield explanations that can help prevent future crashes. A January 2000 NTSB report on an Alaska Airlines flight that crashed off the coast of California determined, largely based on black box data, that the horizontal stabilizer on the tail was

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Black Boxes and Data Transmissions
Data downloads from airplanes have their place - but they will not replace the black box. Data downloading systems would be useful near airports when planes on approach and takeoff could continually download information to the controllers computers - possibly alterting the controllers to a problem before it happens. The vast majority of accidents happen during approach and takeoff. It makes sense for the planes taking off and landing to transmit their data in real time.

As for the two black boxes that were lost during the World Trade Center attacks - it isn't so much as they were lost as they were destroyed beyond identification by the implosion of the buildings they came to rest in.

Black boxes have been recovered from nearly every other airplane accident - including ones over the open ocean. More than one box has been retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. It is easy to imagine an airplane attitude which would prevent any communications - upside down, for example, or pointing straight up/down. I think they will remain as a staple of accident reconstruction.
Posted by smfriedland (9 comments )
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Black Boxes and Data Transmissions
Data downloads from airplanes have their place - but they will not replace the black box. Data downloading systems would be useful near airports when planes on approach and takeoff could continually download information to the controllers computers - possibly alterting the controllers to a problem before it happens. The vast majority of accidents happen during approach and takeoff. It makes sense for the planes taking off and landing to transmit their data in real time.

As for the two black boxes that were lost during the World Trade Center attacks - it isn't so much as they were lost as they were destroyed beyond identification by the implosion of the buildings they came to rest in.

Black boxes have been recovered from nearly every other airplane accident - including ones over the open ocean. More than one box has been retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. It is easy to imagine an airplane attitude which would prevent any communications - upside down, for example, or pointing straight up/down. I think they will remain as a staple of accident reconstruction.
Posted by smfriedland (9 comments )
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Need to imrpove blackboxes not transmit the data
I mean come on! Only 30 minutes of recording time! That is so crappy. Take a small handheld digital voice recorder, throw it in a padded titanium box and put 2 mics through a small slit and youve got a perfect blackbox. Those things can record for hours.
Posted by wazzledoozle (288 comments )
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Well, obviously it's not that simple.
Black boxes are usually stored in parts of the aircraft most likely to survive impact, not the cockpit. When I worked with these boxes, there were probably miles of wiring connecting the various sensors to the boxes near the tail. Keep in mind the expense of upgrading all of this equipment, particularly on older aircraft. When many of these digital black boxes came out (15-20 years ago) they were cutting edge technology and 30 minutes of digital recording was phenominal. Most of the commercial aircraft you fly in these days are of voting age, or older.
Posted by Titos 2 Cents (18 comments )
Link Flag
Need to imrpove blackboxes not transmit the data
I mean come on! Only 30 minutes of recording time! That is so crappy. Take a small handheld digital voice recorder, throw it in a padded titanium box and put 2 mics through a small slit and youve got a perfect blackbox. Those things can record for hours.
Posted by wazzledoozle (288 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Well, obviously it's not that simple.
Black boxes are usually stored in parts of the aircraft most likely to survive impact, not the cockpit. When I worked with these boxes, there were probably miles of wiring connecting the various sensors to the boxes near the tail. Keep in mind the expense of upgrading all of this equipment, particularly on older aircraft. When many of these digital black boxes came out (15-20 years ago) they were cutting edge technology and 30 minutes of digital recording was phenominal. Most of the commercial aircraft you fly in these days are of voting age, or older.
Posted by Titos 2 Cents (18 comments )
Link Flag
Toughen future requirements, but let the current systems stay.
I'm probably one of very few tech guys who have actually worked with black boxes, the sensors, installation and whatnot. I spent some time as an avionics mechanic working on commercial MD-80/88's and did upgrades to flight data recorders to meet new FAA requirements.
These boxes are extremely tough, and are filled with components designed to take a real beating and survive intact. The only downside is the slide rule of technology since these aircraft left the line, and the huge time and money investment to upgrade this system.
A luxury car from 1985 had great bells and whistles for it's day, and the systems work well for what they were intended to do. Current luxury items are far better of course, but would you want to upgrade that 1985 model vehicle with the latest gadgets? None of the original pieces would talk to the newest equipment, and the car would be in the shop for 2 months.
For the airlines, a new mandate would be a similar scenario. None of the sensors, wiring, or collection equipment would be reusable from the analog to the digital systems. It would take downtime from service to comply with the rework, further impacting the dollar line of an already bankrupt industry. And honestly, how often are they used - when the plane crashes. Considering how rarely the devices fail or are lost, is this really a concern or someone's dream of another post-catastrophe safety device?
Posted by Titos 2 Cents (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Toughen future requirements, but let the current systems stay.
I'm probably one of very few tech guys who have actually worked with black boxes, the sensors, installation and whatnot. I spent some time as an avionics mechanic working on commercial MD-80/88's and did upgrades to flight data recorders to meet new FAA requirements.
These boxes are extremely tough, and are filled with components designed to take a real beating and survive intact. The only downside is the slide rule of technology since these aircraft left the line, and the huge time and money investment to upgrade this system.
A luxury car from 1985 had great bells and whistles for it's day, and the systems work well for what they were intended to do. Current luxury items are far better of course, but would you want to upgrade that 1985 model vehicle with the latest gadgets? None of the original pieces would talk to the newest equipment, and the car would be in the shop for 2 months.
For the airlines, a new mandate would be a similar scenario. None of the sensors, wiring, or collection equipment would be reusable from the analog to the digital systems. It would take downtime from service to comply with the rework, further impacting the dollar line of an already bankrupt industry. And honestly, how often are they used - when the plane crashes. Considering how rarely the devices fail or are lost, is this really a concern or someone's dream of another post-catastrophe safety device?
Posted by Titos 2 Cents (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sy Levine, since 1996, had already patented, documented, published, presented at conferences, presented to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) & the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), published in news papers, and on blogs the vast amount of Flight Recorder work written about by Dr. Kavi in the August 2010 IEEE Spectrum article. Therefore, the IEEE Spectrum article by Dr. Kavi should have included references. For some further information concerning the real-time telemetry of the Black Box/Flight-Recorder data to the ground and its importance for aviation safety, security and cost reduction refer to the following:

? November 1998, 17th Digital Avionics Systems Conference (DASC)/IEEE paper, "The Remote Aircraft Flight Recorder and Advisory Telemetry System and its Application to Unifying the Total Digital Avionics System". It won the best session paper award; https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=741423

? March 1999, US Patent No. 5,890,079 Remote Aircraft Flight Recorder and Advisory System (RAFT), Seymour Levine. This patent telemeters the information presently going to the flight recorders (Black Box) to the ground in real-time for safe retrieval but also it can prevent a substantial number of crashes from even occurring. Patent available on line via a Google Patent Search using the USPTO patent number.
? May 1999, National Transportation Board (NTSB) Symposium on Transportation Recorders paper, "RAFT And Its Ability to Reduce the Fatal Air Accidents by 78 % While Enhancing Air Space Capacity, Operational Efficiency and Aircraft Security"; pages 247-270 https://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/1999/RP9901.pdf
? November 2000, 1st International Aircraft Safety Association Symposium, N.Y. paper, "The Remote Aircraft Flight Recorder and Advisory Telemetry System, RAFT, Can Substantially Reduce Fatal Air Accidents While Enhancing Air Space Capacity, Operational Efficiency and Aircraft Security";

? August 2006 US Patent No. 7099752, ?SAFELANDER?, Lenell and Levine. This patent drastically decreases the cost of flying, substantially reduces aircraft crashes and can prevent a 9/11 recurrence;

? October 2007, 26th Digital Avionics Systems Conference (DASC) paper, "An Onboard Pilot & Remote Copilot for Aviation Safety, Security and Cost Savings". It won the best session paper award;

? May 2008, IEEE, AESS, SYSTEMS Magazine paper, ?Onboard Pilot & Remote Copilot for Aviation Safety, Security and Cost Reduction"

? April 2009, Advanced Avionics Conference in Montreal, Canada, ?Emerging Technology Provides Cost Reduction While Enhancing Aviation Safety and Security?.

? November 2009, Advanced Aerospace Manufacturing Conference in Saint Augustine, FL., ?Emerging Technology Revolutionizing Aircraft Safety, Security, Reliability and Cost Reduction/The New Paradigm? (Highlights how RAFT would have had Air France, Airbus A330, Flight 447 flight recorder data in real-time safely on the ground and may have prevented that crash from even occurring).

The Dutch in October 2009 in their magazine ?De Ingenieur? wrote up the use of the Remote Flight Recorder to locate AirFrance Flight 447 crash site within a couple of minutes and possibly for the prevention of that crash. They also discussed how this technology could have prevented 9/11.

You can get some of this material on line by going to the website:

http://www.safelander.com

Or by doing a Google search using: ?sy levine and aviation safety?

Should you need more information on this topic please feel free to email: sylevine1@sbcglobal.net or levines@wlac.edu
Posted by sylevine1 (14 comments )
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