Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An idea...

As I was driving to work today, I heard news that yet another Airbus had crashed into the ocean. This time it was a Yemeni jet carrying 153 passengers and the only survivor was a toddler. The usual thoughts about retrieval of the crucial components that record flight details and the difficulties of seeking the same in deep water were the topics of fervent news conversations across the airwaves. I also know that just about any minute now (over the course of today) the black boxes of the doomed flight from Brazil carrying 228 passengers that went down over the Atlantic about a month back will stop transmitting the 'beeps' that would have helped us locate the boxes and in turn find out crucial information about the last minutes of the fated flight.
The 'black boxes' in question are really the flight data recorder (a device that continuously samples aircraft parameters like time, pressure, altitude, airspeed, acceleration etc and records the same onto appropriate media) and the cockpit voice recorder (which records all conversation within the cockpit, any ambient noises and all communications between the cockpit and the outside world). The data contained inside each of these boxes usually help investigators piece together crucial parts of a doomed flight and help them in determining / ascertaining the cause of a disaster thus helping avert similar catastrophic events in the future.
On older aircraft the data is stored on especially hardened magnetic tape based backup devices while on the more modern planes the data is digitally stored on PCMCIA based ATA flash drives (akin to a USB hard drive that you and I might use).
The idea goes something like this: It is common knowledge that Aircell, an airborne communication company has the required patents that allow the use of broadband Internet service on jetliners. They recently announced that they received full FAA certification for a High Speed Internet system which is supposedly 56 times faster than a traditional dial-up connection. In fact, American Airlines and Virgin America recently became one of the first airlines to offer broadband internet connection to all of the passengers. Other solutions to deliver broadband internet connectivity at 35,000 feet include the use of GPS based internet connections that rely on data packet transmissions to overhead GPS satellites.
Given that the airplane has a reliable internet connection, it should be a trivial problem to send packets of information to and from the plane to ground based data servers (using a satellite as an intermediary). The digital output from the flight voice recorder and the flight data recorder can be easily streamed, encrypted and compressed using appropriate algorithms and delivered securely for storage at flight information data centers around the world (or better still stored on a cloud based international information exchange that is managed by a global consortium). In addition to collecting the flight data information and the voice recorder information, an internet based streaming capture solution would also allow the recording and streaming of digital images (jpeg or mpeg) from the cockpit that will help us accurately understand spurious actions that the pilots may have performed during the last minutes of an unforeseen disaster. As flights criss-cross the world, the data centers could rely on existing high speed data replication and data mirroring technologies that will help the ground based system maintain a fail safe scenario and also help manage multiple copies of similar data for redundancy and faster access from any point around the globe. The envisaged data storage costs would not be that high as the flight information stored could periodically be purged (every six months - maybe) as most of the flights would have safely landed and we will not need (presumably) access to 'safe' flight information. In the event of a disaster, the search can thus be limited to finding survivors and precious monies spent on recovering the black boxes could instead be diverted towards saving humans lives. I think this is a set of technologies that could have come to fruition only when the technology maturity was appropriate with respect to the multiple variables surrounding the proposed solution (internet in flight, data centers, data replication, streaming technologies etc) and I believe that that time is now.

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