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Updated Black Box Proposed
September 1, 2010

Black boxes, which house a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, are considered the weakest link in the investigation of airliner crashes. They can be lost or damaged, and even at their best they can store data from only about a day’s worth of flight. If nothing goes obviously wrong during that day, the data gets overwritten.

In a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, Krishna M. Kavi, a computer scientist at the University of North Texas, proposes to replace the currently used black box with a real-time transmission system. This system, he argues, would assure our access to critical data not only at the moment it is generated but for years to come. Experts could thus mine the archived data for patterns that show up only over the long run. Because the data would be shared among all safety analysts, making the system as a whole transparent, Prof. Kavi calls his system a glass box.

To make it work, engineers would have to find ways to keep aircraft in constant touch with the cloud-computing system. When flying low over land, with plenty of telecommunications nodes within reach, aircraft could beam a great deal of information to the system. When flying over the ocean, they would use satellite connections to transmit only the most critical flight data.

With such vast new pools of data at their fingertips, safety experts could identify many flight problems that now escape notice and establish procedures tomore effectively handle them.

The black box was one of the greatest single advances in the history of safety engineering, Prof. Kavi says, but the time has come to move to a more technologically sophisticated system.

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