Black box technology is outdated

With modern technology, it is perfectly feasible to add video recordings, ejectable black boxes and cloud storage.

Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots look for the vanished Malaysian flight. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots look for the vanished Malaysian flight.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The old-fashioned black boxes still in use on aircraft raise the question why this aspect of aircraft safety seems to have been neglected. When one considers the huge difficulties associated with locating and trying to recover the missing black box of Malaysian MH730 from a depth of about three miles below a hostile sea, one must wonder why a method has not been devised that would automatically eject it from the aircraft in the event of sudden impact and make it buoyant in the event of crashing into water. With modern technology it is perfectly feasible to add video recordings of cockpit as well as cabin activities which would for example reveal a hijacking or a pilot incapacitated by sudden illness.
And with modern computer “cloud” storage, why not store the data outside the aircraft, with a facility for real-time reviewing in the event of an emergency, triggered by the pilot or from the ground if the plane disappears from the radar as in the MH370 tragedy? Let’s look at each of these possible improvements.
Ejectable black boxes
As long ago as 1949 a patent was granted for a marker buoy which included the automatic release of a surface float and a marker dye to discolor the surface of the water. In 1964 a patent was granted for ejectable flight recorder- data capsules automatically ejected from an aircraft in the event of accidental landing, collision, or disaster. And last July Airbus was assigned a US patent for an aircraft black box which includes a crash detection device. The black box is ejected outside the aircraft through a duct positioned so that on ejection it will not impact the aircraft.
The good news is that these devices have been in use by the US Navy for years and that the subject was raised in the US Congress by Congressman David Price, who reintroduced a bill to make ejectable black boxes compulsory.
The bad news is that Price’s bill has not received the enthusiastic congressional, media and public support it deserves.
The reason for non-implementation by airlines appears to be cost considerations. In a comment on Linkedin in March 2013, Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, commented that the biggest enemy to air travel is rising costs that drive fares higher, destroying price-sensitive air traffic. He added that in the 13 years since 2000, every single high cost, legacy airline has gone through bankruptcy at least once, consolidated, and radically restructured its labor contracts.
But in light of the exorbitant costs of searching for a submerged black box this attitude is “penny wise and pound foolish.” According to an ABC report the search for MH370 could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. At least 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries including China, India and Australia have been involved, and the US Navy has sent two destroyers, the USS Pinckney and the USS Kidd, as well as two planes equipped with the ability to search for objects underwater.
Cockpit video
In this case a privacy vs. safety controversy compounds the cost considerations that impede implementation of better safety equipment. Pilots and their unions have fiercely fought it as an invasion of privacy.
In 2000, The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that commercial and charter planes be equipped with video recorders.
Unfortunately the recommendation has not been implemented although cockpit video recorders are available from US manufacturers.
A video recorder in the cockpit of EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed into the sea after takeoff from New York in 1999, would have been invaluable to crash investigators, who concluded that the pilot crashed on purpose, a conclusion that was disputed by the Egyptian government.
Cloud storage
The idea of storing all the vital information in a cyberspace “cloud” is also not new. University of North Texas professor Krishna Kavi advocates a technology he refers to as the “glass box” that would stream information in real time to the ground. Dr. Kavi has been quoted as saying the technology is already utilized in phones and computers and even on airplanes that provide Wi-Fi for passengers.
He has been advocating the plan for years but he says the issue of cost is the roadblock every time.
The bottom line is that unless government mandates it, the airlines aren’t going to spend the money, and Kavi reminds us of initial resistance to airbags and seat belts because of expense.
The essential need today is to strike the right balance between safety concerns and economic demands. The enormous financial and emotional costs of the search for flight MH370 prove that we can’t afford to keep the present outdated black box technology while far superior and more effective equipment is available, albeit at a cost.
The author is a retired engineer and commentator on current affairs.