Monday, August 23, 2010

Black Boxes are Fine: Glass Boxes Might be Better

"Beyond the Black Box"
Krishna M. Kavi, Tech News, Discovery News (August 23, 2010)

"On 1 June 2009, Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330-200, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crew members. No one knows why the plane fell out of the sky, because no one has ever found its black box.

"The plane plunged so deep that the black box's sonar beacon could not be heard, and by the time the French navy had dispatched a submarine to the area, the beacon's battery had evidently died. Crash analysts were thus reduced to poring over information the airliner had transmitted before going silent, information too sparse to determine what had happened, let alone how to prevent it from happening on some other airliner.

"One of the Best Inventions in Safety Engineering

"For half a century, every commercial airplane in the world has been equipped with one of these rugged, reinforced, waterproof boxes, which each house a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder. For hundreds of crashes, they have given investigators the often heartbreaking details of the plane's demise: the pilot's frantic last words, his second-by-second struggles to keep the plane airborne, and the readings of the gauges and sensors that reveal such key parameters as the airspeed, altitude and the state of the plane's engines and flight-control surfaces. Such information has enabled analysts to infer the causes of most crashes and, often, to come up with preventive measures that have saved thousands of lives.

"Every now and then, though, a black box is destroyed, lost beyond all chance of recovery or, as in the case of Air France 447, beyond all chance of detection. Lacking the black box and its precious data, we have no way to tell whether the last problem reported was the cause of the crash, the result of a deeper problem, or just an artifact of the sensor system on board. And because we can't pinpoint the cause of the crash, we can take no steps to prevent similar failures in the future....

"...I envisage a glass box, that is, a system that would be transparent because it would be in the cloud -- not a cottony puff in the sky but rather the network of servers and databases that covers ever more of the world every day. The system would offer ubiquity, invulnerability, unlimited storage, and unparalleled powers of search...."

First of all, this isn't so much news, as an op-ed piece. And a pretty well-thought-out one.

Krishna M. Kavi's glass box could be used for situations other than crashes. The op-ed points out the experience of Flight 188, when pilots overshot an airport by 150 miles. A glass box on the plane would, in principle, have narrowed the possible explanations: and at the very least frazzled the nerves of ground controllers a bit less.

In a way, a "glass box" isn't a very new idea:

"...Most aircraft already shunt some information to ground stations. The data, which come at regular intervals, have to do with the flight path and airspeed, as well as information that maintenance crews need to service the plane when it lands. This system mostly uses VHF frequency-shift keying, which can handle just 16 bits per second, now popular in ships at sea...."

It seems to the Lemming that it wouldn't take all that much to expand the system to include what's stored in black boxes today.

Which are orange: This piece gives a short history of the black box, including how it got its name.

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