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Air France Tragedy Prompts Question: Are Airliner Black Boxes Now Obsolete?

One of the core concepts of the new paradigm for air traffic management, per NextGen and the Single European Sky, is network-centric information management. Aircraft will be equipped to generate and transmit, in real time, a lot more (and better) information than they do today, permitting far more precise tracking of exactly where they are at all times. That is the key to reducing spacing in all three dimensions, thereby making much more efficient use of airspace.

The loss of the Air France A-330 in the South Atlantic and—thus far—the inability to retrieve its cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (the black boxes) has led to considerable discussion among aviation experts about a high-tech alternative: real-time streaming of that kind of data to airline control centers on the ground.

The Associated Press reports:

The two recorders, key to helping determine what happened to the Air France plane that plunged into the ocean May 31, will only continue to emit signals for another eight days or so.

If all of the flight information was streamed the data would not be lost if the black boxes were destroyed or could not be located. Since air safety is generally enhanced by figuring out what went wrong in a crash, the result would be an increase in air safety.

But is it do-able, at an acceptable cost?

Well, to begin with, nearly all airline aircraft (at least for major carriers) are already equipped with a system called ACARS, which transmits data about the status of various aircraft systems to its maintenance base. Reports on the Air France crash have recounted the kinds of information received from Flight 447 in its last minutes. But there is a much larger volume of data collected on the two black boxes, so having enough bandwidth to transmit all of that in real time is a potential problem. But data compression techniques exist, and a spokesman for Canada’s Aeromechanical Services has suggested that a system it makes could transmit 10 times as much data per second than the uncompressed data sent via ACARS. And spokesmen for black box makers Honeywell and L-3 Communications agree that this is a realistic prospect.

ACARS was developed by ARINC, and now both ARINC and competitor SITA offer various competing communications services. Given the importance of learning everything we can about the causes of crashes, this kind of real-time data-streaming—either to supplement or replace black boxes—should be seriously explored as part of NextGen.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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