Should we put bigger batteries in airplane black boxes?

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

One question a lot of people are asking in the wake of the Malaysia Airline Flight 370 tragedy (yet to be resolved as I write this), and the resulting mystery as to its fate, is why don’t flight data recorders (called “black boxes”), have bigger batteries? In many cases a crashed aircraft can be relatively easily found, especially if the crash was on land or near shore. However, as this case demonstrates, an aircraft loss in the deep sea can take months, and the battery in current black boxes only last weeks. What should we do?

Sadly, any change would have to wind its way through the regulatory and commercial process of adoption, and also require significant engineering effort to upgrade the related systems and redesign the packaging to accommodate and protect a larger battery, but we will not address these issues here. Let’s just concern ourselves with the issue of how to improve our oversight on airplane crashes so we can prevent (or at least significantly reduce) their recurrence. The biggest issue involved is the recovery of data from the aircraft after the fact.

Data recovery is a problem other vehicular black-box systems do not share, as they occur on known and explored land and can be easily recovered. Sea vessels, having had to deal with disaster management far before any autonomous systems, have long ago developed their own multiple-redundancy processes and technologies for both dealing with and recovering from catastrophic situations. Only in aircraft do we have the potential need to search through woods, mountains, and seas for the data package that would tell us the fate of the passengers and crew.

But would putting in a larger battery be the best solution? This has come up in the debates going on in the industry and legislature, as it has become apparent to all that even in busy world very large things can fall through the cracks without proper oversight. A larger battery in the black box would enable the search for Flight 370 to go one for longer, increasing the chances that the aircraft wreckage would be found. Larger batteries in all black boxes would give us that much more time to find that vital information in the future.

However, that just increases the chances of finding the recorder, it does not guarantee that the box will be found. It is an appealing and intuitive solution to a very real problem, but it is a solution based on last-century technology. We need a solution that will not only prevent what is going on with Flight 370 from ever happening again, the solution should also bring with it modern real-world added value due to its advanced nature.

The best (but recognizably costly, but how much is safety worth?) solution would be to put aircraft into the Cloud. If every aircraft streamed its location, status, and other significant parameters while airborne, this situation would not exist, and we would know everything important about what happened to Flight 370. (Remote control to eliminate any hijacking or pilot-incapacitation issue would be an option worth looking into as well.)