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FAA Mandates Major Aircraft "Black Box" Upgrade 277

coondoggie writes "Earlier this week the FAA mandated upgrades and updates to aircraft voice and data recorders within the US. The goal of the updates: to assist future investigations with 'more and better data' from accidents and incidents. The 'mandate means manufacturers such as Honeywell and L-3 Communications as well as operators of airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more seats, must employ voice recorders, also known as black boxes, that capture the last two hours of cockpit audio instead of the current 15 to 30 minutes. The new rules also require an independent backup power source for the voice recorders to allow continued recording for nine to 11 minutes if all aircraft power sources are lost or interrupted. Voice recorders also must use solid state technology instead of magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to damage and loss of reliability.'"
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FAA Mandates Major Aircraft "Black Box" Upgrade

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  • You'd think (Score:2, Interesting)

    That video surveillance would be part of the mandate.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by petermgreen ( 876956 )
      what for? They know what the pilot is doing to the controls from the flight data recorder (which is seperate from the cockpit voice recorder to increase the chances of recovering at least one of them). They know what the pilots were saying to each other from the cockpit voice recorder. Afaict that is all they really need to know to work out what the pilots did in the runup to the crash.
      • I'd like to know what happened in the cockpit of United 93 on 911, the audio recordings didn't make it clear.
      • by grumbel ( 592662 )

        They know what the pilot is doing to the controls from the flight data recorder

        That of course requires that the instruments actually work as they should. More then one plane has gone down due to instruments displaying incorrect values or pilots reading them wrong. A few cameras that actually show what is going on could help clear up a lot in some cases were the audio recording leaves the investigators with a lot of guess work. See for example Helios Airways Flight 522 []. There also have been accidents where the pilot switched of the working engine, not the damaged one, a little externa

        • Here are two reasons not to have cameras:
          1. They are expensive and often can't be easily installed without major modifications.
          2. What good is a camera in the cockpit going to do? It won't be able to see outside(even if it could, you'd still see what the pilots saw, which obviously didn't help them) and it probably won't be able to read the guages. You end up with a video of the pilots doing what the other recorders already said they were doing.
          • by Rakishi ( 759894 )

            even if it could, you'd still see what the pilots saw, which obviously didn't help them
            Why even bother having a black box at all, obviously none of the information it records helped the pilots in any way it can't be of much user to anyone else either?

            Yeah, months of analysis by hundreds of people won't find anything more than do a couple of people with 10 seconds to think...
  • by amRadioHed ( 463061 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:22PM (#22724454)
    more data from crashes it seems to me that the obvious solution would be to just ease up on aircraft maintenance requirements. Leave it to the government to always pick the hard way.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jd ( 1658 )
      One airline was recently busted for ignoring those regulations for many years. The airlines are clearly doing their best to supply the data regardless.
  • You drop any solid state device hard enough and it'll fail due to stress fractures in the silicon.
    • Agree. Break the magnetic tape, you can still put it together with a bit of adhesive tape. Break a flash memory, you have worthless pieces of silicon.
      • by AresTheImpaler ( 570208 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:34PM (#22724546)
        I might be wrong, but the point is.. a SSD doesnt have any moving parts that will be "move" in an unwanted fashion once the airplane or just the blackbox is hit. This is specially true for all the vibrations that would go thru blackbox material. The black box itself is supposedly there to protect the disk and other instruments from a direct hit, but vibrations will still go thru.
        • The point is that those vibrations you mention would destroy the solid state storage, thus rendering the data absolutely useless and null. True that tape drive motors would be severely affected unless the whole unit had a gyro stabilizer (which I think some models do) but solid state would shatter upon impact. You rarely find working electronic devices after a plane crash, except for military ones.
          • no, those vibrations would not destroy teh solid state storage. a direct hit that would shatter, bend or deform it physically would. At the other hand, moving parts become unreliable with vibrations.
            • When something vibrates, the whole object becomes moving parts. That's what vibration is, material in an object moving in a regular fashion. Therefore, strong enough vibration in a device that relies on everything always being in the correct place will destroy it.
          • by Eivind ( 15695 )
            These things are tested, severly.

            They are shot from air-cannons and hit concrete-walls at 900mph. They have sharp, heavy objects dropped on them from large heigths. They are soaked in gasoline and set on fire, they are immersed in sea-water pressurised to the level you'd have a thousands of feet.

            Contrary to your claims, solid-state storage is actually able to pass these tests. The lack of moving parts make it much easier to armor the thing. It is -quite- hard to physically shatter a solid-state chip that is
    • by Detritus ( 11846 )
      Package it properly and it can survive almost anything. The military has been using proximity fuses in artillery shells since World War II.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Please do some research [] first. "Currently, EUROCAE specifies that a recorder must be able to withstand an acceleration of 3400 g (33 km/s) for 6.5 milliseconds." To test the armor and memory, manufacturers test them by firing them out of a calibrated cannon (compressed air, not gunpowder) into a hard surface.

      They also survive crush tests, penetration tests (IIRC, 1/4" steel dowel on a 500lb weight dropped 10' on all six faces), short term high intensity heat (propane flame "goosed" with oxygen to make

    • That's true, but silicon is at least an order of magnitude stronger than magnetic tape, which is fairly notoriously fragile. It's a minor miracle that the recorders survive serious crashes in a usable condition as often as they do.

      Any crash that would fracture silicon chips would leave pretty much nothing at all of the airplane or magnetic tape-based FDR/CVR units, so I see this as a general win.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Eivind ( 15695 )
      True. But "hard enough" is subject to the packaging. Package a chip in 3 inches of elastic-but-hard epoxy, and package that clumb of epoxy in half an inch of stainless steel, and you'll find that the "hard enough" dropping, needed to fracture the silicon, is much MUCH more than the terminal velocity of same (i.e. it'll likely survive a freefall from ANY height)
  • Upgrades needed. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by engagebot ( 941678 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:28PM (#22724500)
    I must first qualify this post by saying that I work at the L3 Aviation Recorders facility that builds all the black boxes. What people dont realize is that we dont just build the flight recorders, but every flight recorder has to come back to this facility to be taken apart and read too. You don't even know how many *old, old* flight recorders come in all the time from retired aircraft or downed aircraft, whatever. Some of the flight recorders out there in the wild are way way behind the new stuff that we're putting in aircraft being built now.
    • Here's a question that's been gnawing at me for a while... why is the "black box" just a recorder? I'd think of this question every time I heard that there's been an accident and the black box had not been found. OR, that they found the box but it was too badly damaged to make out all the data. Is this still a problem?

      If a black box (BB) senses an anomalous event, why couldn't it transmit a [compressed] copy of the recorded data? Or, even better, besides recording it all, transmit all the data all the

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ruinevil ( 852677 )

        Quote []

        One thing I remember from an ACM meeting was that radio transmissions take a lot of power compared to getting data and storing to memory. This was from team who used to check the soil moisture and temperature around campus using stakes filled with a battery for some purpose or other. So the blackbox would need a lot more power to survive those 9 to 11 minutes, while transmitting voices to where ever. You can't get all the radio waves from every American plane to Florida anyways. You'd need some powerful tr

      • by jd ( 1658 )
        Transmitting all of the data at time of accident would be problematic, but I can't see an objection to the black box retaining abnormal data and transmitting that when landing or taking off. It might be a useful early-warning to prevent accidents in the first place, or perhaps give additional information helpful to investigators on where stresses or abnormalities aren't.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Actually, something very similiar to that is already done at many airlines. The data is downloaded at various intervals, and examined for any 'unusual' events - the pilots involved are contacted in a 'non-jeopardy' fashion and asked to explain why something occurred. It has already led to significant improvements in maintainance replacements, and highlighted a few non-optimal procedures that tend to put a crew in a worse place than they started.

          The key is that it is non-jeopardy, otherwise the pilots w
    • I used to work at Sundstrand Data Control way back in the day (yes, dating myself). I can still remember repacking the foil recorders - nothing like a few thousand feet of razor-tape! But man was it reliable, and pretty much impervious to heat, cold, or vibration. Only penetration would affect it.
  • by Joe The Dragon ( 967727 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:30PM (#22724524)
    We should try to find a way to built the plane out of the stuff that the black box is made from.
    • How did you get modded insightful instead of funny?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Don't be stupid. We build planes from thin pressed light-weight metals, while the black box uses heavy steel casing several inches thick. You think a 4 billion ton plane can get itself off the ground? No engine would accelerate it, much less fast enough.
    • We should try to find a way to built the plane out of the stuff that the black box is made from.

      Better yet, try to find a way to make humans out of stuff that can withstand a 900 MPH crash...
    • Obligatory Red Dwarf quote (from "Psirens"):

      Starbug crashes on to an asteroid.
      LISTER and CAT are putting out small fires on the consoles. KRYTEN is checking the computer screen. RIMMER staggers in.

      RIMMER: Any damage?
      CAT: Not too bad. A couple of the sensors are out, fuel-intake chambers are both flooded and the left pilot seat doesn't go up and down any more.
      RIMMER: We came through that intact?
      KRYTEN: Starbug was built to last, sir. This old baby's crashed more times than a ZX81.
      LISTER: I

  • by teamhasnoi ( 554944 ) <.teamhasnoi. .at.> on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:46PM (#22724622) Journal
    to allow continued recording for nine to 11 minutes if all aircraft power sources are lost or interrupted.

    9 / 11? Odd arbitrary range of numbers.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by shadow42 ( 996367 )
      They didn't mention in the article that the boxes have to weigh less than 42 pounds.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AJWM ( 19027 )
      Would 10 +/- 1 make it clearer?
      • I can see why you'd want to specify a minimum time but why a maximum? What disadvantage is there to having a device that does 15 minutes?
      • by Eivind ( 15695 )
        Not really. That would imply that a device was out-of-spec if it somehow managed to record for MORE than 11 minutes without being supplied external power. I see no sensible reason for such a prohibition.
    • Furthermore, it should be "9 to 11" or "nine to eleven" not "nine to 11." Apparently, news for nerds needn't be in decent English.

  • Realtime Streaming (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @10:56PM (#22724682) Homepage Journal
    Why don't these black boxes stream their data live to satellites during the entire trip? Why is the technology limited to making a recording crash-proof?

    They should keep the crash-proof boxes, for events that stop the streaing before the recorder stops. But why should they have to always wait to investigate the data until after a little box, that could have been itself destroyed in the massive crash, be found amidst all the debris, scattered sometimes across dozens of miles of often inaccessible terrain? If the data is streamed live, they might also find the box sooner, if the box has a GPS that continues streaming after the box has landed somewhere.

    This seems elementary. Why not do it already, now that both air flight and radio have been with us for over a century?
    • Why don't these black boxes stream their data live to satellites during the entire trip? Why is the technology limited to making a recording crash-proof?

      One reason is that the lead time for new communication protocols and applications in aviation is measured in decades. Remember that all aircraft still report 12 bit mode 3a identifiers which have to be allocated before use because there aren't enough to go around, and use totally spoofable VHF AM radio transceivers.

      • Yes, but that attitude is stupid when lives and $billions are at stake.

        Satellite phones are already decades-old tech. Something specific has to be holding them back. Or the aviation industry and the government that controls it are as immensely stupid at everything as they always appear to be.
        • Something specific has to be holding them back. Or the aviation industry and the government that controls it are as immensely stupid at everything as they always appear to be.

          For a start it is an international system. Aircraft made in Pakistan have to interoperate with ground systems in the US, Canada, Russia, etc. Systems like mode-s and ADS/CPDLC go part of the way to what you want, but their adoption has been slowed by the fact the VHF voice comms are free everywhere and satellite communication costs a lot of money, particularly when you want an aviation grade connection and it has to be on all the time.

          You are right, just wait 20 years.

    • by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @11:27PM (#22724862) Homepage
      For one thing, it would be horrendously expensive to develop and deploy a network of satellites and ground stations capable of handling a high-speed data feed from every commercial aircraft that's in operation. Black boxes are much more cost effective and reliable. They work in all weather and are insensitive to aspect ratios and loss of attitude control.
      • There's already a satellite network, that handles data. The data doesn't need to be "high speed". The recorders don't record that much data.

        I didn't say to get rid of the boxes. I said to keep them. But I said to add some technology that already exists, is already used for telemetry out of harsh environments. And that don't go down with the ship (or at least don't take all their data with them before being read when they go).

        BTW, "aspect ratios"? Huh?
        • by Detritus ( 11846 )
          I should have said "aspect angle".

          What's the satellite network that you are referring to? Most remote telemetry applications use burst transmissions to transmit limited amounts of data.

          • There are several networks [] that satellite phones use.
            • What are you proposing? Take those satellites offline from phone use and use them for airliners? What about the companies that paid for those satellites? Wouldn't they have to buy more satellites? Just because something exists that could meet your needs doesn't mean it is available for your use.
    • Why don't these black boxes stream their data live to satellites during the entire trip?

      Because it would be absolutely horrendously expensive, terribly unreliable, and almost completely useless. There are huge, huge numbers of glitch-free flights every day (but they all have to pay for uplinking numerous megabytes of data per hour), and only the very tiniest fraction of aircraft ever need that flight data examined.

      They should keep the crash-proof boxes, for events that stop the streaing before the recorder

    • The black box should be ejected, or ejectable from the plane at certain acceleration levels if at all possible (accelerations such as those you would experience shortly after your "Hey, what's that sheep doing up in this cloud?" moment). The Lockheed D-21 supersonic drone used to drop the hatch containing spy cameras before landing, so there's build precedent. This would be in addition to filling the entire box with silicon rubber after assembly into it's own little alloy billet and all those other wonde
      • Sure, that's good for the recorder and a few extra seconds at the end. But radio telemetry would reduce the search for the black box to something done while the analysts get right to work on all the data they've already got, without risk of loss.
    • by Animats ( 122034 )

      Why don't these black boxes stream their data live to satellites during the entire trip?

      There are privacy issues. The voice data logs are normally erased after a successful flight.

      Many aircraft do in fact send some maintenance data back to HQ over a data link. The current system [] is 2400 baud, so not much data is sent. Nor is it sent continuously. ARINC charges for receiving that data through their network of ground stations, and the cost per bit for this 1980s technology is quite high.

      • What privacy issues prevent the voice data from being scrambled for transmission, and being deleted when the flight is deemed successful?

        And AFAICT, current recorders just record something like 7.5MB:h, which is something like 2.5KBps. There is an entire satellite phone system up, to say nothing of all the other satellite networks available. Why is it necessary to keep the 1980s tech, when we have 2008 tech that would be so much better? Why, when we're upgrading the whole system as the story we're discussio
        • What makes a streaming solution better? Seems to me you're assuming (1) a large proportion of black boxes fail, so we need to ensure better survivability of the data by not tying it to the survivability of a physical box, or (2) there's some value in getting access to the data a day or two faster by having it on a disk drive somewhere immediately, instead of having to go find the box in the wreckage.

          I think both are questionable. In the first place, I believe black boxes routinely survive crashes unscathe
  • Finally (Score:5, Informative)

    by ceroklis ( 1083863 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @11:20PM (#22724830)
    This was one of the recommendations issued by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada following the crash of Swissair Flight 111. I'm glad they finally implemented that. To recap: the flight recorders in that flight lost power 6 minutes before impact, which necessitated a very costly reconstruction of a portion of the aircraft.

    In any case I never understood why these recorders weren't required to have a battery backup from the beginning. Seems pretty idiotic since accidents involving loss of power are not hard to imagine. Furthermore devices like card access systems and elevators have had battery backups for years.
    • by Detritus ( 11846 )
      It's one more thing that can fail, requires regular maintenance, creates new hazards, and adds weight.
    • by ryanov ( 193048 )
      I was thinking of this myself, when I was reading about TWA flight 800 the other day. Apparently the black boxes stopped recording almost immediately, since power was lost. I thought about it a little harder and figured, well, the chances of there being anything to record if the rest of the airplane has no power might be pretty low. If the instruments for recording are actually IN the box though, and not just recording data sent from the rest of the plane, I suppose it would be possible.

      Neat to see them man
    • are all the sensors and stuff that might be sending data to the flight recorder going to be working if the power is out? Doesn't the data come in as electrical signals from some powered transducer? Seems to me with a battery on the flight recorder you'd just be recording some extra silence. The only thing that would continue to work would be any sensors actually inside the flight recorder, e.g. internal accelerometers and such. Certainly there's no way to record voices from the cockpit if all t
  • by the pickle ( 261584 ) on Tuesday March 11, 2008 @11:40PM (#22724938) Homepage
    From TFA:

    "These provisions affect new aircraft manufactured after March 7, 2010."

    This won't affect a single new aircraft for two years unless Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, and Embraer decide to do it on their own, and it does NOT apply to the existing fleet of transport category aircraft at all (i.e., retrofits are not required).

    • If the date of manufacture is the day the aircraft rolls off the assembly line, I'd say this will affect many aircraft.
  • I think the real reason for the new rules is to increase the money from fines.

    From TFA

    * By January 1, 2005, retrofit all airplanes that are required to carry a cockpit and data recorder with a system that is capable of recording the last two hours of audio; and is fitted with a 10 minute independent power source that is located with the device and that automatically engages and provides 10 minutes of operation whenever power to the recorder ceases, either by normal shutdown or by a loss of power to

  • (With apologies to Gary Larson)

    First Officer: "Oh No! The fuel warning light is on! We're all going to die!!!"

    Captain: "You idiot. That's the public address system light, not the fuel light."

  • by Mr. Roadkill ( 731328 ) on Wednesday March 12, 2008 @12:59AM (#22725340)

    Voice recorders must also use solid state technology instead of magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to damage and loss of reliability
    Okay. Good luck with splicing together itty bitty fragments of flash memory chips. Good luck with pulling information out of flash memory chips that have been under a couple of miles of salt water, and had the briny deep seep in between the legs and the epoxy and into their inner goodness. I hope they've got all kinds of grinding machines designed to allow them to separate individual chips off busted boards and prepare them for reliable connection to special test jigs, because the chance of them being able to play back from a flight recorder that's just fallen from 40,000 feet must be pretty slim.

    I'm not saying you couldn't build a solid-state flight recorder that could survive most conceivable crashes, but surely tape and solid-state should be viewed as complementary technologies - current, perhaps improved magnetic recorders for the current timeframes (so you've got at least the last half hour on something you can piece together and pull an analog signal off, if need be) and the whole flight on an ever-improving series of solid-state recorders that would have to consider mil-spec as a starting point for where they need to head.
    • It's been a while since I've been near solid state technology, but I have used tape for years. I'm not so sure tape is more resilient, but I like your idea of doubling up.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      Okay. Good luck with splicing together itty bitty fragments of flash memory chips.

      And you think the FAA doesn't know the potential problems and hasn't been working on them for years? These devices have been under development for around thirty years and have been commercially available (and certified by the FAA) for over a decade now.
      The FAA didn't just make this decision out of the blue you know.
  • cockpit video (Score:3, Insightful)

    by blitz487 ( 606553 ) on Wednesday March 12, 2008 @01:28AM (#22725476)
    They'd do even better with recording cockpit video. Then they can see where the pilots are looking, and what they are doing, rather than having to guess it.
    • All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value. -- Carl Sagan

      Video would require many times more storage than all the rest of the instruments put together and it would have less value overall. If they have all the information that the pilot has, then they can pretty well guess at what the pilot's looking at. On the other hand they could have a video that duplicates a lot of information, brings new information that's less valuable than the old information, and introduces increased cost and complexity.

      Also, I really like that quote use it whenever I can.

  • wide angle view (Score:3, Insightful)

    by supernova87a ( 532540 ) < minus language> on Wednesday March 12, 2008 @02:58AM (#22725804)
    Maybe this is a little bit off topic, but I for one am quite grateful to live in a society where air safety is so well looked after and monitored. We really don't skimp (in general) on air safety, and take quite a rational view about how checking and maintaining planes, and training pilots actually contributes to preventing accidents.

    This is far from the common attitude in some other places around the world. In some other countries, operating an "airline" is still a very seat-of-the-pants operation -- passengers are unrecorded, cargo is misloaded, pilots are bribed to take things they don't know about, etc. And if a plane were to crash, people would throw up their hands and say, "what can be done, these things just happen", or "it's God's will that accidents occur", or "why talk about it?". But here, we've been accustomed to understanding that there were tangible causes behind every accident, and if we could only see the moments before the crash (since often no one survives to tell us what happened), we might be able to prevent future accidents. This is an admirable thing that I am very grateful for.

    The state of the technology and awareness of safety are so advanced that accidents have decreased so much in the US, that the NTSB/airlines, having fewer crashes to investigate, now analyze the data from normal flights, and look for patterns that suggest unsafe conditions -- and they change those unsafe conditions. see this article for example []

    Finally, just regarding some of the other points made here, I am not an expert, but I think it would be impractical to have a nonstop streaming black box. These recorders not only capture audio, but sub-second sampled data for dozens, if not scores of readings from the aircraft systems -- non stop. Multiply that by the number of planes in the sky, and it quickly becomes overwhelming I think. Most airplane data systems are at the text messaging level of bandwidth.
  • I can see the good points of the mandated upgrades, but no more magnetic tape?

    The pros and cons of solid-state memory in black boxes:


    1) Increased number of system parameters.
    2) Smaller phyisical size, which permits larger drive size and thus longer data retention. The available space can allow for either a smaller overall unit size (not necessarily a good thing) or more room for battery power for beacons.


    1) More susceptible to impacts.
    2) Can be damaged by voltage spikes/short circuits, or electric

I use technology in order to hate it more properly. -- Nam June Paik