NASA sent a spacecraft to Mars in 2003 with a rover vehicle to explore the surface of the planet.  The Mars rover called Spirit regularly talks to NASA providing real-time data: “Communications with Earth are in X-band via the high gain directional dish antenna and the low gain omni-directional antenna. Communications with orbiting spacecraft are through the UHF antenna. The onboard computer has 128Mb RAM. An inertial measurement unit provides 3-axis information on position.”

Yet, here we are in the 21st century, and a Boeing 777 airliner has gone missing without a trace.  It is very disturbing.  Thousands have been impacted by the missing airliner. How is it that we have the technology to communicate with a relatively small device on Mars, but can lose an aircraft with 237 people on board?  Only a few years ago the industry faced a similar situation when an Air France Airbus A330 crashed in the South Atlantic.  The AF447 event was equally disconcerting, and it took two years for the resolution of what actually happened to be determined.  Even though the aircraft had sunk under two miles of water, parts were raised, investigations conducted and an explanation provided as to what happened.  It turned out that crucial little bits of data from the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) aboard the airplane, gave investigators clues as to what happened. But such a radio-based system, which has been around for quite some time, uses Telex formats to transmit limited information to and from the aircraft, and is far from broadband communication.

Modern aircraft are highly sophisticated machines.  The Boeing 777(MH370) and Airbus A330 (AF447) are both exceptional aircraft that are used the world over.  They provide safe travel to tens of thousands of people every month, without incident.  Airlines like these aircraft because they are reliable, economical, and safe.

However, things can go wrong.  In the AF447 case, there were many emergency messages scrolling across the screens demanding pilot attention.  The aircraft was in a violent storm and the postmortem analysis indicated the crew got confused, allowing the aircraft to enter an aerodynamic stall, failing to take the proper steps for recovery.  Even with all the best technology on the flight deck, humans can still be overwhelmed.

One might think that after AF447 interest in adopting state of the art communications into aircraft would see progress.  After all, the Space Shuttle had telemetry and unmanned aircraft were able to attack targets over Afghanistan while being controlled from Nevada, so why not commercial aircraft?.  Surely enhancing aircraft safety would be a natural next step that everyone could get behind.  Indeed, as this story states, there are no technical challenges.  But retrofitting old aircraft with modern technology hasn’t happened.

The latest aircraft, such as Boeing’s 787, and the forthcoming Airbus A350 and Bombardier CSeries, each have advanced communication systems for performance and maintenance data. When one United 787 recently had an electrical event, causing the flight to make a precautionary landing in New Orleans, Boeing, through real-time telemetry, knew about the problem before United could pick up the phone.  The 787 is a generation newer than the 777, and the value proposition has been established.  Simply put, the cost of this tracking performance data to avoid maintenance problems is worth it.

But aircraft are not replaced quickly – this means that the A330s and 777s flying now will still be flying for many more years. The same applies to other older intercontinental aircraft like 747s, 767s, and A340s that remain in service.

However, many of those aircraft are being retrofit with satellite communications and wi-fi systems for passengers. If an airline can provide passengers with internet connectivity, then clearly the aircraft would be capable of transmitting performance data, including position, altitude, heading and speed. These key metrics are not “heavy data” requirements, and could be compressed and transmitted every 10 seconds.

The most immediate reaction to the proposal to require aircraft to actively send key data is financial, as  the cost is not insignificant.  Events such as AF447 and MH370 thankfully are quite rare.  However we should note that black boxes are also expensive – or were when they were introduced.  Legislation resulted in requiring these devices fitted to aircraft.  Airlines would never have done this without being pushed to do so.  Given the ever-changing financial dynamics of the airline business, with a never ending search for lower costs, airlines don’t like spending any money unless they have to.

We believe that it is time for regulatory action to require real-time communication of black-box data via telemetry.  This would provide the benefit of knowing in real time the status of a flight, and if any conditions changed just before a crash.  It would also help search and rescue to locate an aircraft from a more accurate final position.

  • Satellite communication systems are the answer, reporting securely to the aircraft operator.
  • ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) is insufficient as it does not “phone home”
  • Since airlines are driven by costs:
    • Insurers can charge more to insure aircraft that do not have this type of data reporting, since an insurer is at risk for an aircraft that crashes.
    • National governments could tax aircraft without data reporting at higher levels, since if that aircraft crashes, it will expend more resources trying to find it.
    • The technology is getting less expensive.  The price curves for such technology, and required bandwidth, are falling rapidly.
    • Telemetry is already proven on Boeing 787, and will be standard on Airbus A350 and Bombardier CSeries

The benefits of telemetry are clearly positive, as shown by its adoption on new aircraft.  The industry needs to mandate a retrofit of these capabilities to older aircraft, particularly those that travel extensively over water.  Perhaps telemetry should be an integral element of ETOPS certification.

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