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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

Wireless Black Boxes

After I watched NOVA's "Crash of Flight 111," which concerns the 1998 loss of a Swissair flight, a colleague who watched it with me asked, "Why don't they just beam black-box data in real time to ground stations via satellite?" She was responding to another colleague's remark about how unfortunate it was that, as the program noted, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders on Swissair Flight 111 had ceased recording roughly six minutes before the accident.

ByPeter TysonNova

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black box
Black boxes, which are actually vivid orange to make them easier to find after a crash, are built tough: Inside each is a crash-survivable memory unit that can withstand exceptional heat, pressure, and violence. But what if the box is lost?
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© National Transportation Safety Board

The New York-to-Geneva flight had mysteriously plunged into the ocean off Nova Scotia on the night of September 2, 1998, killing all 229 people aboard. The black boxes could have provided valuable clues as to the cause of the crash. But without their data on the final minutes of the flight, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada undertook what became a four-and-a-half-year, $39 million investigation to try to determine the cause by other means.

Neither I nor anyone else in the room that day had an answer to my colleague's question. So I called experts at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as well as in the academic and private sectors. Their collective answer: They're working on it, with potential not just for black-box data transmission but also for better troubleshooting during emergencies, improved airline efficiency and maintenance, even telemedicine. But it's easier said than done.

Instant info

The advantages to having continuous, real-time transmission of flight and cockpit information are many. First, in the case of a crash, black-box data would be available to investigators immediately. They wouldn't have to wait for the recorders to be dug out of the ground or fished from the seafloor. This has important implications in our age of terrorism. Law-enforcement officials need to know quickly whether a crash was terrorist-related; suspect trails grow faint with each passing hour, much less the days or weeks it can take to recover black boxes and analyze their recordings.

hangar in Nova Scotia
With no black-box data recorded during the final five minutes and 37 seconds of Swissair Flight 111, investigators had to seek clues to the disaster's cause elsewhere. Their in-depth investigation took place in this hangar in Nova Scotia.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

And when black-box recordings are lost, as was the case with the two planes that struck the World Trade Center, downloaded data may be the only data. (I should note here that if Swissair Flight 111 had had a real-time data link, it would have quit operating at the same moment as its flight and cockpit recorders. Like black boxes, data-link systems would rely on a plane's electrical power, which the Flight 111 pilots shut off during their attempt to isolate and fight the fire that eventually brought the plane down.)

A robust data link would also mean a lot more information than just black-box data could flow, and it could flow both ways. As it is now, aircraft, particularly when flying over oceans, are often incommunicado for long periods. "Next to a remote desert island, it's about the only place you can hide and be out of touch," one aviation expert told me. With a broadband communications link, people in the air and on the ground could be in constant, detailed contact.

Most experts agree that such systems would supplement rather than replace black boxes.

This would have clear benefits, most significantly the ability to cope with emergencies. If air-traffic controllers clearing aircraft for takeoff could glean pilot intent from incoming data, for example, they could reduce runway incursions, a leading cause of aircraft mishaps. "If you're polling this data every second, and you see that a pilot who hasn't been cleared is powering up and taking his foot off the brake, you know he's going to move," says Jay Brown, a computer scientist at the FAA Tech Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. "With airplanes, it takes two or three seconds to get them to move, so you could potentially stop a runway incursion."

Air-traffic controllers
Air-traffic controllers might be better able to prevent runway incursions if they had access to up-to-the-second information coming from aircraft under their guidance.
© Corbis Images

critical to routine

During a technical emergency, pilots could get critical advice from engineers and other experts on the ground, who would have real-time knowledge of that plane's engine conditions, flight-control positions, and other essential data at their fingertips. During a hijacking, air controllers, government officials, and other key personnel could make more effective decisions, even warn possible targets. Had controllers been able to detect instantly the flight-path changes and other burgeoning anomalies on the 9/11 planes, perhaps something could have been done, at the least, to lessen the loss of life on that tragic day. Flight attendants could even better tend to mid-flight medical crises. Sensors attached to a patient, for instance, could give ground-based doctors vital signs and other measurements upon which to base potentially life-saving decisions.

Whether intentionally triggered or not, emergencies on aircraft are thankfully rare, and it is during routine operations that such a high-bandwidth link would be most continuously useful. If, for example, computers monitoring a data link could alert mechanics that a certain part of a flying aircraft was in imminent need of replacement, an airline could have that part waiting at the plane's destination. If airline staff had a real-time sense of exactly where their aircraft were at all times, they could better schedule personnel to greet planes, collect baggage, and the like. If the FAA saw that an airline was constantly monitoring an aircraft's engines—a clear safety advantage—it might extend a required overhaul from every 15,000 hours to every 20,000 hours, a significant cost saving to the airline.

Making it work

Several ways to develop such a system are under consideration. The FAA Tech Center, which researches, develops, and tests new aviation equipment for the FAA, has been working with the San Diego-based Titan Corporation on a prototype system architecture. It relies on existing communications links such as air phones (when an aircraft is within line of sight) and satellites (when it's not) to transmit black-box or other aircraft or cabin data to ground stations. Titan's Richard Goelz says the project grew in part out of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, whose black boxes took over a week to recover, at enormous cost. "The project started with the idea that there needs to be a better way of making data like that available without an extended search," he says.

Like many crashes in the sea, the loss of TWA Flight 800 required an extensive, costly search for its black boxes (here, the USS Grasp at the crash site). With a real-time transmission system, flight and cockpit data would be available instantly.
© Department of Defense, Airman Charles L. Withrow, U.S. Navy

Another company, AeroSat Corporation of Temple, New Hampshire, has a Department of Transportation grant to demonstrate a different way of doing the same thing. Instead of air phones or satellites, AeroSat proposes using aircraft themselves as transmitter/receivers. When a plane is beyond line-of-sight, it would send its data to another flying aircraft in the fleet. That second aircraft would pass the data to a third plane, and so on down the line until one of that airline's planes is within line of sight of a ground station and can dump the data down. "It's like rain coming off a roof," says AeroSat's Bill McNary: The information passes along horizontally in a high-altitude network of daisy-chained aircraft until it can find a way down.

Regardless of approach, experts agree that the technology exists and that the amount of data to stream is quite manageable.


So what's the delay? Cost, for starters. "Purely from an accident investigation standpoint, airplanes almost never, ever crash," says Jim Cash, the NTSB's senior technical advisor for black boxes. "So to be continuously sending data off an airplane that could go its entire 40 or 50 years of flight service and never have an incident or accident—nobody's got that kind of money, especially the airline industry. It's still much cheaper to put a box on an airplane and just have it run its merry life recording data that nobody will ever look at."

If there's one thing that everyone wants to know in the wake of disastrous crashes, it is what happened.

Costs include designing, building, operating, and maintaining the system, which may require a series of new ground stations and/or expensive satellite time. There are also privacy and competition issues to consider. How, for instance, do you ensure, even with encryption, that only Singapore Airlines receives Singapore Airlines data? And there's no guarantee that a plane under stress won't lose its data link just when it's needed most, as would have been the case in those final six minutes of Swissair Flight 111. For this and other reasons, most experts agree that such systems would supplement rather than replace black boxes.

Crash of Flight 447 program image
Since this article appeared in 2004, a passenger jet did crash mid-ocean: Air France Flight 447, which disappeared in the Atlantic on June 1, 2009 (see "Crash of Flight 447" in Related Links above). Its black boxes were not found until two years later.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Despite the hurdles to wireless transmission, it may not be too far off. Aviation specialist Paul Czysz, a professor emeritus at St. Louis University, believes that all it would take to spur an official drive for a telemetry system would be the crash of a major jetliner over mid-ocean in which the black boxes were unrecoverable—"a Titanic event," as he calls it. "You're going to have to have something like this," Czysz says of a real-time data link, "just to make sure you know what happened."

And if there's one thing that everyone—from crash investigators to victims' families to just about anyone who ever flies—wants to know in the wake of disastrous crashes like Swissair Flight 111, it is what happened.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Crash of Flight 111.