As aviation industry pundits, observers and stakeholders from all over the world consider the “cost/benefit analysis” of automatically transmitting black box data from aircraft in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, some experts suggest that the industry consider quicker, more cost effective solutions in the nearer term.
In terms of cost effectiveness, the idea of “a simple and ‘non-tamperable’ device” is appealing, says Peter Morris, chief economist for Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy, in a comment to Runway Girl Network. “Do something quick and effective for basic location info at reasonable cost (installation plus running). It will also more easily sidestep endless waves (years?) of international CAA and crew negotiations as to how, when etc, etc. [You] could look on it as an auxiliary back up for ADS-B.”
Equipping aircraft with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) – which sends and receives information about an aircraft’s position, speed and intent, with frequent updates to other aircraft and air traffic controllers – represents one of the cornerstones of the United States’ NextGen air transportation system. But ADS-B “Out” equipage won’t be fully required until 2020 in the US, for instance.
Inflight connectivity consultant Michael Planey takes a similar view to Ascend’s Morris, saying that the first thing to consider is developing “a better system of transmitting or confirming aircraft location”. This does not even need to be derived from the black box. “We need to understand where the gaps are in real-time positional tracking. That could be [accomplished] with improved use of GPS, improved use of broadcasting your data, and not just relying on pilots to do verbal check-in as navigational beacon,” he says.
Michael Denis, VP strategy and marketing at content lifecycle management company Flatirons Solutions, suggests that having the operations in place on the ground to handle the data is just as important. He notes that an executive from a major US airline once said, “We’re filling up terabyte data worth of data and we don’t know what to do with it.” In short, “it’s a knowledge problem” as well, says Denis.
Ultimately, there “is no question that there is a move in the direction of transmitting certain critical flight information on a regular basis”, suggests Planey. But there are myriad questions that need to be answered first. “How do you determine when to activate it? If you’re talking about using broadband connectivity, then you’re talking about cutting into assembly lines [to install]. Nobody has put a single number associated with it.
“While it makes sense to add this capability to have satellite connectivity [eventually], the idea of modifying either the flight recorders or the flight management computer or certifying some other type of critical safety information transmission is not an insignificant cost and it has to be born by somebody.”
Meanwhile, an automated flight information reporting system (AFIRS) – that is already in place on a reported 350 aircraft – continues to be touted by its makers as a cost efficient solution for sending data from flight data recorders.
But as more and more airlines equip their aircraft with broadband inflight connectivity systems, we’ll also see them use these pipes in creative ways to both drive operational benefits and potentially transmit more essential data to the ground.
“We’re going to get to a point where the carriers are buying the connectivity systems with that [operational benefits] as the primary, and passenger opportunities as secondary, because it becomes so critical to operate,” says Barry Schliesmann, chief product officer at LiveTV.
The company, which today announced it is being sold to Thales for $400 million, is bringing a “persistent fat connection” via regional Ka-band service to JetBlue, United and Aer Lingus aircraft. “This opportunity with Thales gives us access to avionics information, and their software expertise”, says Schliesmann, noting that this in turn will help the parties unlock further opportunities for exploiting the broadband pipe in new ways.
“We need to have an understanding of those benefits that we as an industry need to do through trials and tests, but the Malaysia Airlines [situation] is a good example of why it’s important to leverage the technology that’s available.”