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‘The Technology Is Out There,’ but Satellites Don’t Track Jets
Airlines routinely use satellites to provide Wi-Fi for passengers. But for years they have failed to use a similar technology for a far more basic task: tracking planes and their black-box flight recorders.
Long before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8, the global airline industry had sophisticated tools in hand to follow planes in real time and stream data from their flight recorders. But for a variety of reasons, mostly involving cost and how infrequently planes crash, neither the airlines nor their regulators adopted them.
One of the haunting questions about Flight 370 — how authorities could lose track of a Boeing 777 jetliner in age when an iPhone can be located in moments — persisted on Thursday as Australian officials said satellite cameras had spotted objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean that might be parts of the missing airliner.
Authorities counseled caution about the sighting, however, and the first Royal Australian Air Force plane to fly over the estimated location of the objects returned to base without spotting anything that fit the description — a reminder of how baffling the hunt for the missing jetliner has been.
The idea of tracking airplanes in flight or using deployable black boxes that can broadcast their location via satellites has been around for many years and gained attention after an Air France jet crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009; it took investigators two years to locate the black boxes, two miles underwater. But the disappearance of the Malaysian plane and improvements in satellite technology could provide a new impetus to track planes more closely, experts said.
“The technology is out there, but it’s just a question of political will to recognize this is important,” said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired Air Force major general. “What hasn’t improved is that we still have to wait to recover those boxes to begin accident investigations. Precious days are wasted.”
Military airplanes and helicopters used in offshore exploration have flight-data recorders that can eject with a parachute in a crash. They emit a satellite signal that immediately transmits the aircraft’s identity and location. But adding an ejection system on a commercial jet would require expensive redesign.
As the hunt for the Malaysian jet turns to the Indian Ocean, investigators will seek to recover the plane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. Generally referred to as the black box, these systems are in fact painted bright orange so they can be spotted easily. They record hundreds of flight parameters for 25 hours, as well as up to two hours of pilot communications and cockpit sounds.
Graphic | Areas of Search for Malaysian Jet Satellite imagery captured near the Australian search areas shows objects that officials said could be related to the missing Malaysian plane.
They are built to survive crashes, withstand fires with temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for more than an hour, and survive in water depths of 20,000 feet for 30 days. They are equipped with beacons that transmit ultrasonic pulses every second the moment they come in contact with water.
But while the technology has proved invaluable in countless accidents, the flight recorders must first be recovered to be of any use.
“It is shocking to find ourselves in the same situation of not being able to locate an airplane,” said Robert Soulas, who lost his daughter and son-in-law in the Air France crash.
The pace of change has been slow. In February 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration said that underwater beacons manufactured after 2015 would be required to have a battery that lasted 90 days once it started beeping, instead of 30 days. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets global airline rules, has also mandated that wide-body airplanes should be outfitted with low-frequency beacons by 2018 to give their underwater signal greater range.
This handout from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows the satellite images of the two objects that officials say could possibly be related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority
But regulators have not pressed for any requirements to upgrade flight recorders with versions that transmit real-time data via satellite.
The F.A.A. has argued that given the tens of thousands of flights in the air at any given time, live streaming of all the black-box information would pose too many technical challenges and hog limited satellite bandwidth. The costs to airlines of transmitting large volumes of data would also be prohibitively expensive and difficult to justify.
“Remember that this is an episodic event, so there is not a large current and present danger of it happening all over the world,” said Michael Boyd, an industry consultant. “Besides, it would be billions of dollars and a huge amount of infrastructure to collect the data.”
Krishna Kavi, a professor of computer science at the University of North Texas, who outlined the contours of a similar, live-streaming system more than a decade ago, said that costs could be contained by just transmitting limited amounts of information in regular operations.
Richard Hayden, the director at FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which provides such streaming services from airplane black boxes, said airlines would need to stream more data only in an unusual situation, for instance, if an engine overheats or a plane deviates from its flight path. In that case, the cost of transmission might vary between $5 to $10 a minute when needed, he said.
Modern airplanes like the Boeing 777 are full of sophisticated devices to communicate with air traffic controllers and broadcast their position, including two transponders, several VHF radios, a satellite phone and text and data-link systems. One of them, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, handles textlike transmissions over radio or satellite links.
But those systems can be vulnerable to tampering by outsiders or can just be turned off by pilots, or anyone else knowledgeable with airplane operations. Industry officials say pilots need to be able to turn off any transmission system in case it starts a fire.
Similar concerns emerged after the 9/11 attacks, when terrorists turned off transponders that broadcast a plane’s identification number and other information, hiding the planes’ identities from civilian controllers. Once an airplane is outside radar range, usually 200 miles from the coast, American airlines insist on getting communications from pilots at least once an hour to track their aircraft. Without these updates, a plane might fly hundreds of miles beyond its last point of communications before anyone was even aware it was missing.
These shortcomings could come to an end thanks to a long-planned transition from radar to satellite-based systems that are expected to greatly increase tracking accuracy by the end of the decade.
This shift is all the more critical as a new generation of airplanes can fly longer distances over water and traffic grows rapidly throughout Asia and the Pacific.
But in the meantime, Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., said rescue operations could be considerably accelerated if airplanes were required to automatically send basic flight information via satellite — such as position, altitude, speed and direction — at much shorter intervals.
Such a system could also be designed to keep transmitting as long as an airplane was airborne or generated power.
Over the last several years, airlines have been installing satellite-based Wi-Fi systems for passenger entertainment that could also be used to facilitate data-streaming, Mr. Mann said.
“It’s ironic that we have this technology so passengers can pay to watch reruns of ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ but that we still have to make the safety case for their use,” he said.