In our modern world of always-on connectivity, having a plane like Malaysian flight MH370 vanish without a trace seemed implausible.
So how can we make sure that we never lose a plane again? One month on from the disappearance of MH370, we asked aviation experts what needs to be done to avoid a similar event happening in the future. It turns out there are a number of smart and simple technologies waiting to be adopted if the airline industry chooses to take them up.
A new kind of black box
Black boxes – actually painted orange – are ripe for an upgrade, according to more than one aviation expert.
“For the last three decades, ‘black box’ recorders have been the most important recoverable equipment pieces from which experts can piece together what actually happened,” explains Paul Beaver, director of Atlantic Air Operations, a UK-based aviation company. Yet while recovering the boxes from known crash locations is straightforward, it’s less easy for a case like MH370. Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, is the case that springs most readily to mind. While bodies and debris were found within days, the Airbus’s flight recorders were not recovered until two years after the crash, nearly 5km beneath the ocean’s surface.
Flight recorders could be fitted with more modern technology so that they transmit information in real time (Science Photo Library)
So how might they be upgraded? “Both airliners and black boxes could be fitted with state-of-the-art detachable (or jettisonable) transmitters that...allow their position to be pin-pointed within a few metres,” says Beaver. “The beacons would be positioned on and around the tail as this is the part of the airliner most likely to survive the impact. Using accelerometers, one or two would break off and there would be another, which is crew-released. A similar technology is used for deep-diving nuclear-powered submarines. Batteries could be sea-water powered, solar powered or have long life lithium cells.”
Other tweaks could improve the battery life, says Mischa Dohler, professor at King’s College London and cofounder of Worldsensing, a sensor company. “An important but fairly simple change would be to have the black box emit the sonar location pulse not as often as every second; if you have it send one pulse every 10 seconds, we could extend the lifetime to almost one year instead of one month – a much larger window to find the black box.
“Current aeroplanes make several different kinds of services available to passengers: interactive media, movies, games, music, internet. You can also make satellite calls from your seat,” explains David Cenciotti of aviation news website TheAviationist.com. “This means that airliners are always interconnected in some way. Why not use one of these channels to report the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) and FDR (Flight Data Recorder) position in real time?”
Cenciotti concedes that this could be costly however, because satellite bandwidth is expensive. A better idea might be…
What does this mean? It’s a proposed technique for monitoring and locating aircraft that arose in the wake of Air France Flight 447, the Airbus A330 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, explains Matthew Greaves, head of the Safety and Accident Investigation Centre at Cranfield University in the UK. “Floating wreckage was found within the first few days, but it still took two years to locate the main wreckage on the sea bed,” he says.
The BEA – the French national air crash investigation agency – set up a working group to investigate what could be done to help locate wreckage in future accidents. They recommended triggered transmission, which only broadcasts an alert when something out of the ordinary happens.“It monitors flight parameters such as height, speed, pitch, roll, and so on,” explains Greaves. “It aims to identify when something unusual is happening which might be an accident. The system then sends an alert signal that is picked up on the ground.”
If a plane disappears over water, it can be many months or even years before wreckage is found. (Thinkstock)
The advantage of triggered transmission over the continuous streaming of flight data is that far less information needs to be broadcast by global air traffic, and only from aircraft potentially in trouble.
The challenge is avoiding false alarms, but Cranfield University and manufacturers are building a system that can distinguish the two, adds Greaves. “There is work underway to make this system mandatory for new aircraft and the proposed regulation will be submitted later this year.”
Prevent aircrews ‘switching off’
At the moment, the aircrew can make the plane almost invisible to radar, says Cenciotti. “By switching off any on-board system, [aircrews] may really make identification and tracking difficult. This should be avoided.”
If we introduce a "new" system to send the black box position to ground receiving stations via satellite, says Cenciotti, “it should be designed in such a way that pilots wouldn’t be able to switch it off”.
The satellite provider Inmarsat has created a new communication service for planes called SwiftBroadband, which could provide accurate position information – even if the communication systems are switched off in the cockpit. It could also be used to download information stored by the black box, the company says.
Continuous satellite imagery of oceans
It took a long time to find images of possible debris from the MH370 crash on the ocean surface, says Pat Norris, fellow of the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society.
Ships are tracked wherever they are - should the same technique be used with planes? (Thinkstock)
Need it have been so difficult? “Several groups have proposed continuous imagery of all the Earth’s surface,” says Norris. Optical satellite imagery might only work in daylight, but it could at least spot aircraft flying above the clouds.
Another type of satellite, using radar, could give all-weather, day and night coverage, he says. “But it’s not cheap – cost figures in the region of two to five billion dollars have been suggested for these concepts.”
Take a leaf from global shipping
Finally, a small and inexpensive tweak could be made to improve the way planes speak to GPS satellites, says Dohler. “With satellite systems already installed in planes, the simplest tweak would be to have airlines subscribe to the most basic and fairly inexpensive service offered by satellite companies, which includes the transmission of the GPS coordinates at regular intervals, for example every hour or every five minutes, or continuously in the case of distress.”
Ships on the ocean already use a simple satellite location system, says Phil Davies, chairman of the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society Space Group. It’s only a “matter of time” before such a system could be deployed on aircraft, he adds. “The technology is relatively straightforward.”
Indeed, a number of these technologies would not necessarily be difficult to implement – the question is: will the aviation industry choose to adopt them?
UPDATE 08/04: The original version stated it had taken a long time to find debris from the MH370 crash, this error has been rectified in the latest version.