Why are airlines stuck in the electronic middle ages?

I work with CNN running a few hours a day, especially in the morning. This morning, part of the discussion over the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370 has revolved around why are we still dependent upon "black boxes" (which are, in fact, high-visibility orange) and cockpit voice recorders which only have the ability to record two hours of conversation. Because large areas of the world are "radar blind" (no coverage) and because controllers depend upon a transponder, which can be manually switched off for position information in these areas (unless someone in the cabin says something), it's possible for a jumbo jet like the Boeing 777 to be flying in a kind of radar limbo until it can be seen by radar again.

Why isn't the black box data being streamed constantly or at least in packets every few minutes to some computer somewhere watching for deviations from the expected course, thus alerting a controller to ask what's going on? Why is there a 2-hour limit on the voice data recorder? Much more than 2 hours could be recorded onto a medium-sized SD card, after all.

Another mystery is why these jets aren't fitted with a GPS. Our phone providers know where most of us are most of the time. Isn't it silly that the position, speed, and direction of a plane full of 240 or so people is a mystery given that your local police department can probably get a warrant to figure out where your phone was relative to the time and position of a crime?

Another topic was, why are there no cameras installed in cockpits? After all, in many locales, school and city bus drivers drive in a vehicle fitted with cameras and those cameras have proven useful time and time again in clarifying what happened. It was said that pilots object that cameras in the cockpit would be (and I quote) "an invasion of privacy." Now, what gives pilots an expectation of privacy in the first place?

I'm guessing it's just the inertia generated by the trajectory of the past: they haven't had cockpit cameras in the past so they don't want them in the future. It's hard not to ask, given their hesitancy, what goes on in the cockpits? We know that pilots take naps on long flights. That's probably good. Put the plane on autopilot with the flightpath plugged in and then rest, depending upon the many alarm systems built into these planes to alert them to a situation. 

Another advantage of having cockpit cameras would be in preserving the reputation of heroic or victimized pilots whose planes go down mysteriously. Had a camera been in the cockpit of flight 370, we'd know if there was an incursion into the cockpit of a terrorist or madman, we'd know if there was a fire, we'd know if the pilot or copilot went crazy. There wouldn't be all this speculation we have now, which has some wondering if it's a situation like Egyptair flight 999, where the copilot apparently took the plane down in an act of suicide.

Most of us have more high-tech electronics in our homes, pockets, purses, or even on our wrists than contemporary aircraft are fitted with.

Is this crazy or not?

Tags: 370, aircraft, flight, gps, technology

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Do mobile phones use the same frequency as that used by planes and how would a mobile gadget interfere with the electronic devices in the plane?

There would be no need for the safety and positioning transmitter on the plane to operate in the same frequency range of mobile gadgets, which are supposed to be turned off anyway, would there?

I don't think I follow. Above a certain altitude my phone never has network coverage, how would it interfere with communication from cockpit and controllers?

And since there is that odd passenger [yours truly included] who may forget to switch off their phones and if these pose a risk to the vessel, can the plane manufacturers come up with a an ingenious solution

I don't think I follow. Above a certain altitude my phone never has network coverage, how would it interfere with communication from cockpit and controllers?

Now, I thought you were asking whether cell phones, iPads, etc., would interfere with the plane's electronics, which explains my reply. 

What does network coverage have to do with anything? These devices still have built-in transmitters and can transmit on various frequencies even if nothing is receiving the signals.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that military aircraft do not fly totally blind in these radar dead zones and use GPS and other systems to relay their activities back to their bases. Apparently, however, this technology hasn't migrated into the civilian area.

As often as not there is something like an AWACS near by (big honking airborne radar) watching and even with B-2 missions from Missouri to wherever in the world needs bombing,  they aren't flying alone, either.  I don't know much about this but it's possible they are transmitting position data to a DOD satellite as well.

Why is there so little int he way of advanced electronics on aircraft?  I'll give you the answer in three letters:  FAA.  They have to certify EVERYTHING that is part of the plane, down to the nuts and bolts, as being suitable.  The pile of paper that goes into certifying something like a brand of washer is over an inch thick.  I don't know what it takes to do the accompanying nut or bolt.  Having to go through that process is what causes absolutely EVERY aircraft part, no matter how trivial-seeming, to cost a shit ton of money.  Electronics MUCH less powerful than my wrist watch cost several thousand--or even tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and install on a single engine prop job.  The only way around this is to classify the plane as "experimental."  And airliners can't be, not and be certified for hauling people.

What makes an airplane fly?  It's not Bernoulli's Law, it's money.

Why is the data capacity of a "black box" so small?  To make it more rugged.  It's *really* easy to trash the data in something like an SD card through, say, an electrical discharge.  The physically "bigger" the bit, the harder it is for stuff to flip it.  They don't pack lots and lots of memory in satellites either, because microscopic memory "flip flops" are easier for ambient radiation to flip in what's called a "single event upset."  Stone axe can be far more rugged and rugged is what you need to survive in orbit or a plane crash.

Planes generally are equipped with GPS.  Even single engine prop jobs are built with "glass cockpits" these days as opposed to the old "steam" gauges (analog dials); those glass cockpits rely on GPS for showing the aircraft's position on a moving map (there are also other sensors that back it up in case GPS ever craps out and the pilot is forced to do his own navigation).  Pilots use it all the time to navigate.  What they don't seem to have is the means to transmit a signal locating them to a satellite.  Nothing else will do the job you are asking about, over the middle of an ocean, for the same reason that there is no radar coverage--radio generally works line of sight unless you are able to use the Heaviside layer. 

A transponder is a pre-GPS solution to the problem.  Transponders don't provide position info (other than the current altimeter reading), but they do ID the aircraft according to a code provided to the pilot by ATC.  A transponder requires a radar beam to hit it and trigger it.  (The radar determines the position.)  But again, that will be line of sight, and there's nothing out in the middle of the ocean to build a radar on.

For anyone interested:  When establishing contact with ATC the pilot is told to "squawk 4321 [or some such code] and ident," he sets his transponder dials to 4321 (or whatever number it is, 0000-7777) and hits a button (marked "ident") that temporarily boosts the signal from the transponder; the ATC operator sees the plane's track flare on his radar screen and instantly knows where the aircraft is.)  By default, if not in contact with ATC, a pilot sets his transponder to 1200 (also known as "squawk VFR"--ATC will order him to do so as he leaves their area of control).  There are still many private aircraft like Piper Cubs that do not have transponders on them, but one of those will never be out over the middle of an ocean--they don't have the range.  I've certainly never come close to flying the "big iron" (like airliners) but it's possible they keep the same squawk code from one ATC controller to the next.

The older and bigger government bureaucracies get the slower they move until they collapse, check your world history, all world empires have grown to collapse haven't they?

Flying is risky but driving your car is more risky.

Besides there is no 'perfect'.  Protection from every possibility isn't practical.

For that matter all life ends in death.

Maybe there is a market here for Unseen's new product the Personal Black Box, it's the size of a pack of cigs and the battery lasts for 30 days (of course the battery is proprietary and costs $89.99), look for it in your spam box soon. :)

So, would an airline like the one operating this aircraft, flying pretty much exclusively in Asia, have to toe FAA's line for some reason? Doesn't seem likely. I get why it may be hard to update technology under the watchful and paranoid eye of the FAA. Perhaps the FAA needs a panel of experts to decide how much testing is needed and how critical a change is to flight survivability and rescue. It's hard to imagine why installing a commonly-used technology like GPS would be very controversial. It would seem that the very same Garmin or TomTom unit you use on the highway would perform almost exactly the same mounted in an airplane while offering little in the way of risks.

Like I said, such units already exist.  The airliners use them, and they are even common on Cessnas flown by private pilots.  What they won't necessarily do is report your location to someone else.

Remember the FAA only controls US airspace. US airliners that fly over ocean do transmit position periodically using HF or SATCOM. Most airliners also have an Inertial Navigation System, so even if GPS goes belly-up, (The military can shut it down....as in when you want to stop a GPS guided missile for instance) a pilot knows his position.

A plane can land itself and often do when visibility is low. Can you stop a pilot from crashing a plane....not until we get rid of them. This has never been a technology issue. In fact the onboard anti-collision systems used to be a pain, because it enforces separation rules. So until you are ready to step into a flying drone, I agree at least install cockpit cameras. I'm sure pilots will love them.

So until you are ready to step into a flying drone, I agree at least install cockpit cameras. I'm sure pilots will love them.

The camera would have to be permanently running and positioned in such a way that disabling it (even with a thumb over the lens) cannot be done without first coming into view of the camera. But a full mask and nondescript clothing could defeat even that kind of measure. The only way to stop someone from defeating a camera is by putting it out of reach.

You're assuming that the only use for the camera is in the case of a terrorist. However, suppose a plane crashes for some other reason. Being able to see and analyze the crew's actions could be useful in many ways. The audio is already recorded anyway (the last 2 hours anyway) so any argument involving pilot privacy seems rather silly. What would we see? The pilots masturbating?

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