After AF447, is the answer to black box conundrum blue?

Imagine you’re the crew on an oceanic crossing. One engine starts to go into excessive vibration, which is detected by the sensors on the engine and by an automated flight information reporting system (AFIRS) on board the aircraft.

Blue Box.JPGThe “blue” AFIRS box instantly launches a report to the ground to coordinate all the people that need to be involved in an abnormal situation – the operator, maintenance and scheduling personnel, or perhaps the OEM and the engine manufacturer, if they provide maintenance support to the operator – and it all happens in the span of under 15 seconds.

Once the data is reported, the operator texts the crew or calls their Iridium satellite telephone to ask their opinion as to what is occurring, and get the benefit of their visual scan of the instruments.

The parties may agree on a prescription of an operational procedure, such as putting the engine into Flight Idle to avoid further degradation of the engine. Then, on the ground they’re prepared to resolve the situation for a quick turnaround. If the problem cannot be resolved, all parties have already set in motion the logistics for doing so.

But what if the abnormal situation is more severe and the aircraft goes into an upset, meaning it goes into extreme attitudes? Then the rules embedded on board would require the box to start sending all the data from the flight data recorder plus position data from the GPS immediately and in a continuous stream. In an emergency situation such as this, the list of recipients would expand to include senior executives, the chief pilot, air traffic control, and search and rescue organizations.
A cost-efficient data streaming solution such as the one I describe is available today but you might not know it to read some of the skeptics quoted in a 27 May CNN article, titled ‘In tech’s golden age, why can’t black boxes do more?’
Air France fin.jpgThe report seeks to explain the reasons why a modern aircraft like the Air France Airbus A330 that crashed in June 2009 in the South Atlantic did not have technology on board to stream black box data to the ground, and why investigators needed to find the airliner’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders at the bottom of the ocean floor – a process that took two years – before being able to outline the events leading to the tragic accident.
An FAA spokeswoman is quoted in the CNN piece as saying: “While the technology may exist, the use of telemetry for commercial airplanes is not currently practical due to bandwidth issues.” The Air Transport Association, meanwhile, says it’s concerned about the potential cost and wants to assess the overall need for such a system within the aviation community, according to the report.
But while everyone has been wringing their hands about whether there is enough bandwidth to support a data streaming solution, and how much it might cost, AeroMechanical Services, which is marketed under the FLYHT brand name, has demonstrated the capability to stream black box and position data from an aircraft in real time. Indeed, at the time of the Air France crash the company already had AFIRS deployed on nearly 250 aircraft, including Boeing 767s, Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s, Bombardier CRJs and Dash 8s.
AFIRS consists of an on board electronic box (blue, not black!), a satellite communication system (presently Iridium, but others would be possible), a web (Internet) hosting and communications manager server, and the Internet. Both the on board box and the web server have rules embedded that determine when and what to report under both normal and abnormal situations.

The system is completely automated and integrated from end-to-end, so no human action or intervention is required to initiate a routine or non-routine report; however, both the cockpit crew and authorized persons on the ground can initiate streaming of black box data and high resolution position reporting if they choose to do so.

Routine reporting is typically sent every 5 minutes, to include an updated position report, fuel on board, and a summary status of the aircraft. Although the system is designed to not require any crew action, the crew has the ability to instruct the system to send data as well (and they also have the use of  Iridium voice channels and texting channels, all run through the AFIRS box).
But what about industry concerns over bandwidth and cost?

“We’ve done black box data stream through the current Iridium 2.4 kbps pipe. The downlink goes through the Iridium ground station in Phoenix, and then the data is relayed by secure internet connection to our server, UpTime, where it is further forwarded to designated recipients after processing. The process takes under 15 seconds and connects any aircraft operating on the globe with any internet address on the globe. Other satcom systems cannot provide the full global coverage – Iridium is unique in that respect.” says Richard Hayden,president of FLYHT.

The cost of retrofitting the entire system, meanwhile, would be “something in the neighborhood of $50,000. The ongoing service cost ranges from a few dollars per flight hour to about $15 per flight hour depending on which menu of services are selected by the customer. Like an iPhone, some apps are free and some are not. But comments about the prohibitive cost of data streaming are entirely inaccurate. The cost of streaming all the data in emergencies over Iridium is under $4 per minute. The operational concept of our system is exception reporting so you’d never contemplate streaming all the data all the time. The feedback in the industry is that this is an insignificant cost compared to the consequences of emergencies.”

So what needs to happen for the industry to adopt a solution such as this?

“We need a dialog in the industry as to how do we change standard operating procedure to take advantage of the information during a serious emergency,” says Hayden. “Right now the industry uses ACARS messages, which are quite limited in terms of what insights they give. In the event of an accident, going and looking for the black box after the fact doesn’t make sense. Our goal is to prevent the crash, not record the crash. But if there is a need for a search and rescue operation, what needs to be worked out is the protocols for notification of air traffic control people and emergency response people, or in the event of a hijacking incident, who in the TSA and their counterpart organizations globally should receive that info. Anybody with an email address can be designated to receive the information. What’s lacking in acceptance of this technology is essentially how to use it industry-wide.”

To this end, SESAR sponsored a study called OPTIMI which was intended to define options for improved position and data reporting, and assess the state of readiness of various options.
In its report, SESAS outlined the advantages and disadvantages of the AFIRS system, saying:

4.2.1 Advantages
This solution offers great flexibility and is unique in its ability to use a wide range of events to trigger alerts/position reports automatically. Down linking FDR data during specific periods is also potentially of great value. This system does not require ACARS or FANS1/A equipage; rather it monitors Arinc 429 and 717 data buses and transmits selected data in accordance with rules embedded in the on board software.

4.2.2 Disadvantages
Such a system cannot replace FANS1/A and its use for air traffic control purposes. It may, therefore, not be attractive to airlines to equip with this solution, although it is already demonstrated to be technically feasible for both types of system to co-exist on the same aircraft. This solution may therefore be attractive to types for which no FANS1/A avionics exist. In the FLYHT AFIRS 220 system the event/status reporting capabilities form a small part of a turnkey solution. Whilst FLYHT believe their existing customer airlines recover the relatively low cost of installation within one year of operation, and therefore such a solution would be attractive in the short term to airlines, the pace of change and the time it will take to achieve a credible mass of equipped aircraft limits this option to the mid term rather than the short term. There may be issued [sp?] surrounding the FDR down linking functionality and data protection. ED112 states that FDRS/CVR messages are strictly confidential and shall not be transmitted from aircraft during flight. Such systems use the internet as the communication network. The safety and security aspects of this would require attention.

Hayden emphasizes that streaming is not a total replacement for hardened flight data recorders (black boxes), “but rather a significant enhancement that allows problems to be reported and worked on by subject matter experts in real time, while the aircraft is flying.”

He adds: “In simple terms, besides providing its primary value in day-to day improvements in operations, AFIRS’ benefit is to prevent the crash instead of just recording it. Finally, the key message that the public needs to understand is that this is not just an “idea”, but a system that performs a very powerful and flexible range of satellite data communications from aircraft, including streaming black box data, is already developed, certified, and deployed around the world.”

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14 Responses to After AF447, is the answer to black box conundrum blue?

  1. Mark June 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Not sure what problem this is a solution for. Certainly not a replacement for either voice or data crash recorders, or the NTSB’s hit list request for flight deck image recorders. Streaming only flight data thru a 2.4kbps Iridium pipe does address voice data or the other 390kbps of flight data recorded on the ARINC747 crash recorder, such as AF447 had, or the practically unlimited data rates that a ARINC767 crash recorder (on the Boeing787) can consume.
    It is a nice enhancement for Central Maintenance Computers and Data Acquisition Units that currently send (and even stream) data to the airlines. But that does not matter, if the airlines are not “listening” on the other end, which very few do.
    The solution to the two year wait to find AF447 recorders, is a new underwater locator beacon design, that screams instead of whispers “here I am”.

  2. Roger June 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    This solution would not work during serious emergencies. Anything that talks to satellites has to be fairly accurately pointed at the satellites. If the plane is swinging all over the place then it is unlikely they will be able to lock on to the satellites. I suspect that if this system had been on AF447 it wouldn’t have been any help.

  3. jetcal1 June 14, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    “The cost of retrofitting the entire system, meanwhile, would be “something in the neighborhood of $50,000.”

    My intent is not to sound sarcastic, but the claim is that they can do the complete install including hardware, wiring, all EMC testing and the STC paperwork for 50K?

  4. U_should_Believe June 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Wow. The three blind mice. NO one should believe anything in those 3 posts as they are mere opinions and misinformation. Look up the companies web site and look at the q1/11 web cast I believe, they just tested the next generation of product IN EXTREME ATTITUDES…. they explain the test, watch it. They are on, working, already, now, today, as quoted, on over 250 planes. The company figured out the bandwidth, it doesn’t cost a arm and a leg and the add-ons, such as fuel management could ideally return 400% on investment. This being a 3-5% savings in fuel let allow maintenance. L-3 has aligned with AMA. L-3 $15B in revenues! For a system that doesn’t work they’ve already logged in excess of 700,000 hours using the product. It seems to work just fine. Kudos to the Runway Girl for doing a quality job.

  5. jetcal1 June 14, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    USB,I don’t doubt the claims of what it can do. I question the 50K installation costs.  

    I did indeed look at the website, the level of RTCA testing, TSO certification and other certs imply a substantial amount of money spent in development.

    Are you saying that they have absorbed the costs associated with that testing? 

    Are you saying that they do not have a STC fee associated for each approved installation?  

    Are you saying that they have absorbed the costs of doing the STC work?  

    Are you saying that even assuming a perfect and complete Fit, Form and Function installation with no transducers or wiring required that the box itself costs less than $50,000 to purchase and install? 

    Or is it about 50K + the cost of the box to install? 

    Or is it about 50K and they make their money by providing the services but perhaps still own the equipment? 


    Aircraft Certification Engineer

  6. Mark June 15, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Just a little correction, my comment “Iridium pipe does address…” should say “Iridium pipe does NOT address….”

    Anyway, USB can call us all blind mice but my information is based on 37 years of aerospace avionics design, developing air transport industry standards, FAA DER and airline operational experiences. They are not based on looking at a company’s web site.

    Again, it is a nice add on for a Central Maintenance Computer if the airline is listening on the other end. It will never be a “solution” for two crash recorders that could not be found for two years.

  7. jetcal1 June 15, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    Hello Mark,
    I’m even willing to concede that this might be the piece of gear that changes everything like the jet engine did.

    But, I am concerned by the install costs being thrown about….it does everything and yet costs almost nothing to install?

    To me it costs the company some credibilty.

  8. Banita June 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Thank you Mary Kirby for the good article. What I see is more barriers by the airline to accept change and solutions for safety. I have followed AF447 stories and it’s sad tragedy. Reviewing your claims its hard to believe there is resistance. I don’t think you lie about this research or why the company would. You gain credibility for me when I investigated your story and found you actually went to location to gain the knowledge, and not like most Writers who don’t today. You maybe should point out in history that black boxs were rejected to. But we now seek for them at the bottom of oceans. If you claim this works does it matter the price to be cheap? What is the value of a life and can we afford not to.


  9. jetcal1 June 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Dear Banita,
    Please go back and read my comments again.
    Thank you

  10. FLYHT June 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Regarding Mark’s first post (June 14), we would respectfully point out that the data rates in their most basic form are not representative of either limits or capabilities without digging further. For example, we have streamed about 300 FDR parameters and 4D GPS through the Iridium 2.4kbps pipe on a continuous basis –most parameters are available at 1 second intervals, and some occur at a rate of 4 per second. The format for streaming through AFIRS to our ground server is different than the data format being written to the FDR, so we can send a great deal more data than if a straight feed was being used. Regarding the new generation FDRs, it is true that they are getting more data, but our colleagues at the aircraft manufacturers tell us that they would actually use fewer parameters than we are currently able to send (less than half to be exact). However, AFIRS also allows the user to select from the entire data dictionary of the aircraft which parameters he/she would like to have transmitted, so, in principle, the entire data dictionary is available. As far as customers listening, our customers do pay attention as they define exactly what they need and when they need it (i.e., all data is not sent all the time), and we provide a customer support service that ensures that they are aware of any significant event on the aircraft. Regarding the final point about locating recorders, the position streaming that occurs over AFIRS and Iridium would provide a trajectory of an aircraft with 1-5 second position reporting and a final fix that would be no more than 5-10 seconds before impact, so the geographic search area would already be pinpointed and much more precise than what has historically been the case.

  11. FLYHT June 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    Regarding Roger’s June 14 post, again we respectfully wish to clarify a key point. Roger is right that most geostationary satellites (such as Inmarsat) require fairly precise and stable pointing with narrow beam high gain antennas, which means that the comm link can be and often is lost during significant or rapid attitude changes of the aircraft, and a re-connect can take quite a while. However, the Iridium system is different than geostationary satellites in that its antennas are non-directional (roughly spherical directivity out to +/- 120 degrees) and its 66 LEO satellites provide more than one simultaneous link. To prove this, we recently flew an AFIRS-equipped aircraft with AFIRS streaming initiated and maneuvered beyond 90 degrees roll in each direction without breaking the lock with Iridium. No data was dropped and the 240+ parameters continued to be received and delivered across the internet to multiple destinations. If an aircraft remained in an inverted (-180 degree) position for more than 11 seconds, the lock with Iridium could be lost; one solution proposed for this rare situation is a second Iridium antenna on the belly of the aircraft.

  12. FLYHT June 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    Re: Mark’s June 15 post, we can connect CMC messages with people on the ground in real time (15 second lag), AFIRS also supplies the relevant data that is associated with the event that the CMC is reporting, including a preview of the data during a period leading up to the event the event.

  13. FLYHT June 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    We would like to recognize Mary Kirby for a thorough and well written article. Our only comment on the article is that we have challenged the OPTIMI “Disadvantage” conclusion by pointing out in the “Economic Assessment Report” that the entire transatlantic fleet (roughly 2200 aircraft) could be equipped with AFIRs in 2-3 years during the normal heavy maintenance cycles (so called C-checks) and that the return on investment from day-to-day operational benefits recovers the capital cost in 1-2 years.
    Please contact us if you have any more questions,

  14. jetcal1 June 27, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Hello FLYHT,
    Those are numbers that seem much more realistic.
    Thank you for the clarification.