American space agency Nasa has performed a controlled crash of a small aircraft to help improve the design of emergency beacons that automatically alert rescue centres of aviation accidents.
The beacons, known as Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT), send signals via satellites upon impact or when in touch with water. However, in some cases they fail to survive intact, resulting in no signal coming through. Similarly, they tend to fail if a plane crashes into the ocean, as it happened in the case of the still lost MH370.
To help find a solution for at least some of the problems, Nasa took a small four-seater Cessna 172, fitted it with five ELTs, suspended it on cables and flung it from 30m towards a bank of sand.
The impact, which saw the fuselage flip over to its back and one of its wings break off, was welcomed with exuberant cheers from the experiment control centre at Nasa’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
“This will provide very good data collection for us,” said Lisa Mazzuca, Nasa’s Search and Rescue mission manager. “This is exactly what we wanted. The nose hit the ground first.”
The test, carried out on Wednesday, was the second of three being conducted at Langley as part of Nasa’s efforts to help improve reliability of the emergency beacons. Whether the ELT sends the signal or not could mean the difference between life and a certain death for those who survive the immediate plane crash.
“With this one, we’re trying to push the envelope,” Chad Stimson, Nasa Langley Emergency Locator Transmitter Survivability and Reliability (ELTSAR) project manager commented on the experiment. “It’s severe, but survivable.”
The scenario mimicked as closely as possible real-life crashes. The five ELTs tested were mounted in the exact locations they would be in a commercial plane, even transmitting data via the Cospar Sarsat satellite system upon impact.
“The cool thing is we’re using the whole system,” Stimson said. “We get real-time feedback from space … and we’re getting first-of-its-kind data to help search and rescue get better outcomes.”
The researchers focused on whether the way the ELT is installed could have any effect on the beacon’s performance. The ELT consists of a brick-sized beacon mounted on an inside wall of the aircraft’s fuselage and an externally attached antenna. But the antenna may break off in the crash and send no signal at all.
The researchers said that crashing the plane on soft dirt could be actually more destructive than an impact on a hard surface. While on a hard surface the plane may slide forward, dissipating some of the energy, in an impact on a soft surface most of the force would be absorbed by the plane’s structure and its occupants.
Watch Nasa's crash test here:
E&T has been investigating ELT technology extensively following last year’s loss of MH370 and the following Air Asia crash. Learn more:
Flight MH370: Emergency beacon mystery examined