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.
The “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?’
The 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:
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.
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.
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.”