On missing planes and black boxes

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

In a previous column we explored the issue of black boxes and commercial aircraft accountability (“Should we put bigger batteries in airplane black boxes?”*) through the lens of the Malaysia Airline Flight 370 tragedy. The terrible initial impact of the irreplaceable loss of life was exacerbated by the physical loss of the aircraft itself, leaving families mourning for their missing loved ones and authorities scratching their heads over the true nature of the event.

The lens we currently view airline disasters through is one of reaction, of forensics to determine faults to prevent them in the future. In that paradigm a crash is something to be examined and learned from, not prevented directly. Black boxes tell us what happened so we can endeavor to make it not happen again. In that case a box’s ability to be discovered at a crash site is its most important capability.

We made the case that real-time monitoring is a far superior solution to the issue of aircraft accident prevention than post-disaster recovery and analysis. A failure-recovery philosophy that switches from a past-oriented reactive to a present-oriented real-time response would have eliminated any doubts as to the fate and last moments of Flight 370. It would also give much more attention to real-time aircraft problems and issues that could be relayed back to the flight crew to enhance safety and performance.

Sadly, we have yet another reminder of the importance of proper aircraft monitoring and oversight in the added tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. At the time of this writing the culprits have yet to be properly identified, but if the plane had a real-time monitoring capability we would know much more about what really happened than we are able to determine with existing technology.

Real-time aircraft monitoring is not an impossible goal in a world where you can buy Wi-Fi Internet access using your credit card in mid-flight. We don’t even have to make it continuous telemetry; the plane can send a compressed (and encrypted) data burst at 5- or 10-minute intervals, for example. The tech exists; it is up to us to implement it. The only arguments against it involve cost, although why the airline industry would dismiss such a solution and the large amount of peripheral functionality it would generate is baffling.

The bottom line is that the world is moving towards a pervasive cloud-based computing environment that involves systems and products from the Smart Grid to the Internet of Things and everything in between. Intelligent systems in real-time touch with themselves, their users, and their environment will not only save us massive amounts of money and energy in improved efficiency and performance, it will also allow us to keep a better eye on critically important assets like planes, trains, and automobiles in a way that makes them not only more efficient and productive, but also safer in operation and more informative in disaster.

* Should we put bigger batteries- in-airplane black boxes