MH370: What If We Could Upload Black Box Data To The 'Cloud'?

The disappearance of MH370 has prompted calls for in-flight streaming of black box data over remote areas, but aviation experts warn about high cost of equipping older airliners with new electronic equipment.

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The mysterious disappearance of MH370 has spurred calls to upload Black Box data to the 'cloud', but experts say implementing changes may be complex and costly

A MAS plane

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The disappearance of a Malaysian plane has prompted calls for in-flight streaming of black box data over remote areas, but industry executives say implementing changes may be complex and costly.

Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said this incident and the 2009 loss of an Air France flight in the Atlantic should spur reforms in what he described an outdated accident investigation process.

National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker

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In brief: The 2009 loss of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic:

Air France Flight 447 (abbreviated AF447) was a scheduled international flight from Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, France. On 1 June 2009, the Airbus A330-203 airliner serving the flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the deaths of all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew.

F-GZCP, the aircraft lost in the accident, photographed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in 2007

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The accident was the deadliest in the history of Air France. It was also the Airbus A330's second and deadliest fatal accident, and its first in commercial passenger service. While Brazilian Navy authorities were able to remove the first major wreckage and two bodies from the sea within five days of the accident, initial investigation was hampered because the aircraft's black boxes were not recovered from the ocean floor until May 2011, nearly two years later.

According to Rosenker, a retired US Air Force General:

'Finding a way to transmit limited information from flight data and cockpit voice recorders to a virtual "cloud" database would help authorities launch accident investigations sooner and locate a plane if it got into trouble while out of reach of ground-based radars.'

"This is the second accident in five years where we've had to wait to get the black boxes back," Rosenker said. "We need to bring the concept of operations for accident investigations and the technology of what is available up to the 21st century."

While Mary Kirby, editor of the aviation industry website Runway Girl Network, said:

'Airlines could use the growing number of broadband connections that allow passengers to access the Internet and download movies to provide real-time GPS data for just such emergencies.'

"Airlines realize that this is the cost of doing business," she said. "It is inexplicable to be bringing these big fat connectivity pipes to aircraft and yet to be in a situation in 2014 where you can lose a plane."

Meanwhile, speaking on the technical possibility to stream flight recorder data to a virtual "cloud", the aviation experts warned about broadband constraints and the high cost of equipping older airliners with new electronic equipment

The Aviation experts and industry executives say new satellite-based air traffic management systems being implemented in the United States, Asia and Europe in coming years will make it easier to track airplanes and monitor aircraft systems in flight, but note it will take a decade or more before the systems are commonplace worldwide.

Streaming the huge amounts of data now collected by flight data recorders may also pose technical challenges, while transmission of cockpit voice recordings could raise privacy concerns, said analyst Richard Aboulafia with the Teal Group.

Rosenker, the former NTSB chief, said investigators could agree on a much smaller subset of key data to transmit, which would save bandwidth and cost. The data could even be sent at intervals instead of continuously streamed, he said.

Most airplanes already have systems known as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that periodically report, either via VHF radio or satellite, on the performance of the aircraft and its engines, which could provide another possibility for getting data to investigators.

Airlines intensively operate their 'AOC' communications over ACARS

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According to one industry executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly since the search for MH370 continues:

While he fully expected reforms after this incident, he said airlines were more likely to increase the amount of data they were receiving from the existing ACARS system rather than opting to stream flight data.

"It would just be too costly. There are 93,000 flights a day, and we've had two incidents like this in four or five years," said the executive

An artwork conveying well-wishes for the passengers and crew of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is seen at a viewing gallery in Kuala Lumpur International Airport yesterday.

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Bob Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and NTSB investigator, said it could potentially cost billions of dollars to allow every plane in the world to stream flight data, but mounting frustration over the failure to find any trace of Flight MH370 could well galvanize the aviation community into some action.

He said other potentially cheaper proposals included outfitting planes with floating locator or data recorder beacons that would automatically deploy if an airplane crashed. "There's a tombstone mentality at times. You actually have to have a very tragic event to get things done," Benzon said. "I predict that this is one of those events unfortunately."

It should be noted that some US military airplanes, including the Air Force's massive C-5 cargo planes, already have floating data recorders. This is because they often fly over large spans of ocean.

While the NTSB has recommended mandatory video recordings in the cockpit of commercial airliners, it has never recommended live-streaming or regular transmission of flight data.

C5 landing at Dover Air Force Base

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Discussion about mandating regular transmissions from airliner black boxes increased after Air France Flight AF447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, its location and Black Boxes remaining a mystery until 22 months later.

This time, investigators are beginning to think the plane may never be found, given the dearth of clues thus far.

So, while the call for moving Black Box to "cloud" hits up, there are some who thinks it's "premature for us to speculate about potential changes to safety and security procedures"

Oliver McGee, a professor of mechanical engineering at Howard University and former senior U.S. Transportation Department official, said advances in technology made this an ideal time to change current procedures.

"It's time to move the black box to 'the cloud' at least for essential limited flight recorder data for long flights over (areas) like the Indian Ocean, or other remote areas across large land masses like across the Brazilian Amazon," he said.

Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, said it was "premature for us to speculate about potential changes to safety and security procedures."

Officials at Delta Air Lines, United and American Airlines also declined comment on the Malaysia Airlines case, and any consequences for the industry.

In the past, airlines have argued that such accidents are too rare to justify the added expense of streaming flight recorder data, but Rosenker said the cost needed to be weighed against the cost of the current search

"Look at what's happening now. We've lost a 777 and over 200 people. Navies and airplanes from around the world are searching for this plane. That's not cheap either," said Rosenker.

A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport

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READ: How the Black Box works and why it's in need of new technology

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