Tech Curiosity: Why Does Black Box Data Stay Within The Plane?

 

Image courtesy WIRED, 2011

Image courtesy WIRED, 2011

A timely question that I’m sure many tech-savvy folks are asking – with all the location-based data and infrastructure in play today, is:  why don’t they know where the Malaysia Airline Flight 370 is, or was, when tragedy struck?  We are exposed to high bandwidth communications, GPS, and real-time, location-based data feeds daily in our connected lives.  So it seems counter-intuitive to hear “we don’t know where the flight was” and the missing item in question is a high tech, modern airliner.One article from BusinessWeek on the subject caught my attention:  http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-10/malaysia-air-crash-why-do-airlines-keep-black-box-flight-data-trapped-on-planes    The cost calculations contained in the article show how expensive it could be to equip all airliners with real-time (or “real-enough-time”) status updates to remote receivers such as satellites or terrestrial antennae, based on some general transmission and storage cost factors.  While cost is always a factor, consider (as several commenters have noted) that other factors are at play. 

  • Bandwidth is not infinite (or free), which calls for careful selection of data items to be transmitted.
  • The GPS tracking technology we find so ubiquitous these days was not widely available over the same number of decades during which the Black Box technology was deployed and honed.
  • Communication streams can break in the most crucial moments, leaving holes in the information gathering fabric, so localized data collection would still be desirable in tandem to remote collection (additive cost – not cost substitution).
  • The back-end systems and infrastructure to support these transmissions would also have to be deployed world-wide to make the solution truly effective (again – additive time and cost).
  • The increasingly positive safety record for airlines and transoceanic flights can’t be ignored when considering lack of incentive to make changes. (With Air France Flight 447 lost just a few years ago and now Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still missing, the safety records are of course coming into question again.)
  • Note that the Black Box recordings are separated into two buckets:  25 hours of digital flight data regarding movements, settings, etc., plus up to 2 hours of cockpit audio.  This appears non-trivial considering the number of daily flights on a world-wide basis (50,000-100,000, depending on which source you trust.)

A related story questions the lack of real-time information transmission, and offers an interestingly polar opposite view of the cost factors and implementation complexity. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2014/03/10/missing-jet-raises-questions-real-time-black-boxes/   Of course, disagreements over the potential cost of upgrading all airline systems to new/improved real-time transmission systems will arise, and it goes without saying that the sources of information need to be vetted w.r.t. who stands to gain what by taking a particular stance.    

Next generation technology is under consideration or in development within the industry. Government/military influence is always providing trickle-down commercial technology improvements (and one can argue the reverse scenario is also true.)  In parallel, private industry is launching satellite networks for image capture and analysis (think Google Earth) as well as communications and location-based services.  So momentum is there – the magnitude may not be readily obvious to those of us outside that particular industry.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The curiosity remains for me: Is the technology associated with airline safety data keeping up with other commercially available technology advances that we see in everyday data communications, IT infrastructure, or mobile communications?  If the answer is no, then it will be interesting to see how the ROI justifications for that new technology – and the emotion-driven incentives to push forward on such tech upgrades despite the cost – will morph as the story unfolds on Flight 370.

 

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  1. [...] Tech-savvy folks may be asking – with all the location-based data and infrastructure today, why don’t they know where Malaysia Airline Flight 370 is, or was?  [...]

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