EgyptAir Flight 804 reminds us: Why are we still using black boxes?

Unlike the confident predictions we heard on the morning after EgyptAir Flight 804 fell out of the sky and into the Mediterranean, the search for data revealing what happened in the final moments may not be over as quickly as we’d initially hoped. If the plane had made it only a bit further, the wreckage would have sunk in barely 2,000 feet of water. (A depth, believe it or not, which can occasionally be reached by human beings in specialized dive suits.) But given where they located the debris on the surface it now looks as if the main structure could be resting somewhere between eight and ten thousand feet down. That’s still barely half the full depth that the flight recorders can handle and the bottom of the sea in that location isn’t particularly gruesome terrain, but it may complicate the search nonetheless as worse weather moves in and the sea becomes more choppy.

With that in mind, Wired Magazine takes us back to a piece which was published back in 2011, asking why in the world we are still relying on these black boxes to store data onboard a plane when the technology to stream it in real time and store it remotely has been around for ages. The article may be five years old, but it’s as pertinent today as it was back then.

If real-time stock quotes can be transmitted to anyone with a smartphone, why does the vital work of investigating an airplane crash still depend on reading physical memory chips that must be rescued from the wreckage?

The tragedy of Air France 447 might have been on the minds of executives from Bombardier, the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, when they announced in 2010 that their new CSeries narrow-body jets, scheduled to come to market in 2013, would be the first commercial airliners built with the capability to transmit telemetry data instead of merely recording it. The idea—to stream black box data in real time, either directly to a ground station or by satellite relay—isn’t new, even though there remains no consensus on whether to call it an uplink, which is conceptually accurate, or a downlink, which expresses the physical relationship of an airplane to the ground.

Bombardier is advertising the innovation not as a way to improve crash investigation—survivability of data after a crash isn’t something airplane manufacturers like to boast about—but as a way to give airlines a central database for routine information on airplane operations and mechanical performance. At a minimum, the data could be stored securely as a backup to black boxes in the event of an accident.

If the airlines want to hide behind an excuse of saying the conversions would cost too much, they should be hounded out of the business. They seem to have enough money to rip out all of their seats and put in increasingly tiny and uncomfortable ones a couple of times every year so they could surely find room in the budget to handle a one time conversion for something this critical. Keeping in mind that any internet and satellite based system can periodically fail, I’m not saying we should remove all of the black boxes. They could still act as a backup in the event that the satellite link is lost at a critical moment. But why not do both? By this point, through a combination of satellites and down links to every minimal population center in the developed world, we should be able to track a plane’s location to within a few feet and stream a series of ones and zeros which translate into all of the pertinent information about the plane’s status.

Those Rolls Royce jet engines already stream a minimal amount of data back home via satellite whenever they are in the air. It’s not as if the technology and most of the infrastructure isn’t already in place if the will existed to utilize it. Honestly… what is the hold-up here? Can anyone suggest a reasonable explanation as to why we haven’t gotten something like this up and running already?


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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 02, 2022