Streaming black boxes are future of air travel

Adam Minter
Adam Minter

When Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, it took two years and over $25 million before investigators found it. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in 2014 and hasn’t turned up. EgyptAir 804, lost on May 19, is somewhere on the bottom of the Mediterranean, but until investigators can dredge up its “black box,” they won’t know why it went down.

All these incidents raise the question: In an age of surveillance and digital tracking, how is it possible planes don’t transmit cockpit data in real time?

After Flight 370 disappeared, the aviation industry drafted a policy requiring that airlines track a plane’s position every 15 minutes. But because the industry couldn’t agree on what technology to use or how, the policy is vague, contentious and won’t take effect until 2021.

In a way, however, it’s also beside the point.

For years, airlines claimed the cost of sending and storing cockpit data would be prohibitive, especially since crashes are rare. But now, with technology turbocharging inflight internet, that argument is faltering.

Broadband pipes – which have allowed international passengers to stay connected at 35,000 feet – can do more than transmit entertainment. They can also send information to the ground. Honeywell Aerospace envisions a near future in which planes stream data about wings, brakes and other components, allowing issues to be addressed on board. Boeing is already solving problems mid-flight.

As such technology improves, a lot of possibilities should open up. For starters, airlines should be able to reduce delays and cancellations, operate more efficiently, and cut costs by studying how planes perform on different routes and under different conditions.

They should also be able to stream black-box data. Last year, Qatar Airlines announced it would do that. Its system, which uses satellite broadband, sends information to a flight control center every five seconds. Canada’s FLYHT Aerospace says it installed 400 of its $100,000 streaming black boxes for about 50 customers. Its system only activates when software detects a problem, thereby saving bandwidth.

So far, regulators haven’t issued any rules on managing streamed black-box data. And they should avoid doing so in a way that stalls out further innovation. But the International Civil Aviation Organization – a UN agency that acts as a de facto global regulator – should consider requiring satellite broadband for new airplanes. It should also think about security measures. And a clear protocol for who has access to streamed black-box data after a crash should be defined.

Meanwhile, there’s a data revolution happening in the skies. It should make flying safer, faster and more predictable. More important, it should ensure no plane disappears again.

Adam Minter is based in Asia and covers politics, culture, business and junk.