Streaming black box data in real time to cloud could help investigators track down missing planes

USA serious about live-streaming of black box data

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has confirmed on Friday it was looking into possibilities of real-time data uploading from flight data recorders aboard aircraft.

Calls for such technology first occurred following the 2009 Air France disaster above the Atlantic and have now intensified with the ongoing and so far fruitless search for the missing Malaysian plane that disappeared presumably somewhere above the southern Indian Ocean on 8 March.

According to Joe Kolly, director of research and engineering for the NTSB, the Board, together with other aviation safety investigation bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), equipment manufacturers and airlines were analysing technical requirements for live-streaming of at least limited amounts of data from the flight data recorders.

"You're looking for what is the most important information," he said. "If the airline industry goes to that in the future, what would be those requirements?"

Kolly said governments were also increasingly interested in the possibility of streaming flight data to ensure security.

"We have our staff involved in technical meetings and discussions and working groups on just what type of data you would need ... what are the rates at which those data need to be transmitted," Kolly said. "And also ... what is going to trigger the data download."

In the case of the Air France flight 447, it took two years to recover the black boxes, carrying the most vital information about the causes of the accident. With the hunt for the missing Malysian Boeing 777-200ER unsuccessful after more than three weeks, questions remain whether the flight data recorders will ever be retrieved.

To prevent a situation like this from happening again in the future, many companies have already started developing technical solutions. One of those companies is Canadian FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which builds a satellite- and Internet-based system used by 40 airlines, business jet operators and others to monitor aircraft systems, map flight paths, and provide voice, data and text services.

FLYHT's Automated Flight Information Reporting System can also stream black box data in emergencies, providing a possible model for the talks under way by aviation officials.

Richard Hayden, a company director with FLYHT, said there was growing interest in his company's technology, which grew out of a development project initiated by the Canadian government in 1998, largely because it can help airlines run their fleets more efficiently and save money on fuel.

He said the system had not caught on as well as expected given airlines' resistance to anything that increased costs. But he said it cost less than $100,000 (£60,000) to install a new system on an airplane, and a few dollars per flight hour to receive the data.

The system is in use on 350 aircraft today, including many that fly over remote areas such as Alaska, Canada, Africa, Afghanistan and Russia. FLYHT also recently won a deal to provide the system for a Chinese aircraft operator, Hayden said.

"This isn't expensive, and we don't have to build any infrastructure since we use the Iridium satellites," Hayden said.

He said the company's system could not replace existing flight data or cockpit voice recorders since it was not built to survive a crash, but the system's ability to provide data in emergencies offered a big benefit for airlines.

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