How Better Black Boxes Could Help Find Lost Planes

Europe's aviation authority proposes new flight recorders in response to the Air France and Malaysia Airlines incidents.

May 7 2014, 3:20pm
Image: Flickr/Patrick Cardinal

In the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which has now evaded search operations for two months, everyone realised that finding a plane in the vastness of Earth isn’t as easy as tracking a blip on a screen.

Various technological solutions have been touted for improving plane tracking in the future, from new radar systems to bigger satellite constellations. But perhaps the one device that most clearly needs an upgrade is the planes’ own flight recorder; the famous black box.

The BBC reports that in response to the MH370 incident, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has released proposals to change the requirements of flight recorders and plane locating devices so that they’re easier to recover in case of an accident.

EASA spokesperson Ilias Maragakis told me the proposals were actually initially spurred by the 2009 Air France incident, in which a plane also seemingly disappeared mid-flight. Its black boxes weren’t discovered for a couple of years, long past the 30-day period in which the underwater locating devices (ULDs) on flight recorders are required to transmit signals. “What we realised is it would have been a lot easier if the time period for when these recorders were transmitting would be prolonged for an additional time, in this case from 30 to 90 days,” said Maragakis.

He pointed out that even though the boxes’ ULDs currently transmit for 30 days, that doesn’t mean you have 30 days to search for debris—you have to find the signal first, and then there’s the matter of bad weather that could disrupt the search. The extension to 90 days was first suggested by French aviation authority BEA.

An opened flight data recorder recovered from American Connection flight 5966, which crashed October 19, 2004 in Missouri. Image: NTSB

Extending the transmission time for the black boxes means they have to be able to survive longer: they need a longer battery life and a tough exterior. “It’s not just any electronic device; you need to make sure it’s survivable in a crash, it detects water, and so on,” said Maragakis. A whole new device would be required, but he said the devices are generally changed every few years anyway.

EASA also proposes equipping larger planes with a separate type of ULD that sends a signal out at a lower frequency (from around 37.5 kHz in current designs to 8.8 kHz, Maragakis said), and is therefore able to travel much further, at around 11 km as opposed to the 1.5 km or so range of the other ULDs. This would be installed on the centre of the aircraft—“so that we ensure that where this device will be, also the wreckage will be,” said Maragakis. 

A third main change involves the voice recorder in the cockpit. EASA wants to increase the recording time of those devices from two hours to 20 hours, so that all sounds in the flight can be captured. I was quite surprised to learn that doesn’t already happen—why the current two-hour cut-off? 

Maragakis said it was even shorter before the 1990s, when recorders worked off magnetic tape. In an era of iPods, things haven’t developed at the rapid clip you might expect. This, he explained, was because of the safety of civil aviation—it is, statistically, a very safe mode of transport. “However, being safe means you’re always careful when you introduce something new into the system,” he said. Basically, you want to make sure a hard drive-based system, for example, will work perfectly well before installing it, and that it's as robust as the old magnetic tapes. 

There’s also a personal data issue there, with some pilots and other crew in the cockpit—which is their workplace, after all—hesitant to accept new recording methods. The recordings aren’t supposed to be accessed unless there’s an incident, but it’s still a concern that needs to be taken into account. 

The EASA’s proposals, which have already been open to comments, will now go through a committee so that European member states can comment further, and then to the European Commission. Maragakis said they should become regulation in less than 12 months.