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Here’s an idea: Let’s put aircraft black boxes in the cloud

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As searchers from more than two dozen countries continue to look for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, some transportation experts are calling for a revamp of the traditional black box flight recorder, recommending that at least some key flight data be transmitted from aircraft to the cloud.

Clearly there are expenses and technology hurdles to be overcome. Streaming all that data from plane to some sort of database would be expensive, but periodically sending key snippets might not be cost prohibitive, experts told Reuters last week.

Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and a retired U.S. Air Force General, said the latest aviation mishap, along with the loss five years ago of Air France flight 447 in the Atlantic, should spur reform of an antiquated investigation process.

The availability of even limited data from the black box and cockpit voice recordings could speed up accident inquiries and locate a plane in trouble if it’s beyond the reach of ground-based radar, he noted.

Oliver McGee, another former NTSB official, concurred, telling Reuters that it’s time “to move the black box to the cloud at least for essential limited flight recorder data for long flights over [over remote areas].” More here from McGee.

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Mark Lucovsky, the star engineer who’s moved from Digital Equipment to Microsoft(s msft) to Google(s goog) to VMware(s vmw) to Mombo Labs, talks about why he’s building atop someone else’s cloud, and not building clouds himself anymore.

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Gearing up for a big week in cloud

Stay tuned for a ton o’ cloud news this coming week, with dueling San Francisco events — Google Platform Live on Tuesday, AWS Summit on Wednesday, and a Satya Nadella-headlined Microsoft confab about the intersection of mobility and cloud on Thursday. Oh, and a Pivotal  platform-as-a-service chalk talk for good measure.

Whether there’s a ton of news is almost beside the point. These vendors are in full-fledged land grab (cloud grab?) mode now.

More cloud news

Red Hat taps once-skeptical Gartner analyst to lead OpenStack push

Amazon Web Services: What’s it worth?

Cloud Computing is still in its early days: Amitabh Srivastava, EMC

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user Auckland Photo News Rodger McCutcheon

69 Responses to “Here’s an idea: Let’s put aircraft black boxes in the cloud”

  1. A.Phil Eayitt

    Another one is to design mandatory pilot underwear with electrodes built around the genital area, and have it hooked up to a real-time electroencephalogram. If the pilot starts to think of doing anything not nice: **ZAP!-ZAP!-ZAP!**, and not in a fun way, until they cool it. Of course, no flying “commando” allowed.

    Just wanted to throw one more Sunday Armchair Engineer idea into this list. I’m sure the experts working in the field for the last 20-30 years are writing these all down.

    • Lloyd Bunting

      They did – Scott McNealy. But someone needs to build the infrastructure. Maybe someone, like Elon Musk or Google could build it and bill IATA, air traffic controllers, and/or individual airlines/airforces/airfreighters a service fee plus a view fee.

      It’s crazy (or maybe it’s now more appropriate than ever) that the only way global infrastructure can be built is by the private sector.

  2. Larry Parks

    How about also including realtime HD cockpit and cabin audio and video in that download to the “black box cloud”. Sound pretty simple with the right advanced equipment.

  3. A.Phil Eayitt

    Great discussion, great ideas. Question: how well will any of these ideas work if, say, looking North for a plane that went South? Or vice versa.

    • A.Phil Eayitt

      NB: that was a rhetorical question. I “get” the whole SATCOM thing. Maybe we could float communications bouys and station submarines just under the surface, all over the world, as the way to somehow make this never-won’t-be-rare event never happens again. Or scatter millions of floating micro devices that can relay fluid signal arrays all over the oceans and wherever else possible (but not tell Snowden about it or he may try to scre THAT up to ensure no potential of anyone’s privacy for where they’re flying is violated).

      Or, go with 2-pronged attack on terrorism : (1) locate and kill known terrorists wherever possible, (2) get serious about identifying the roots of terrorism–including fkey factors such as where Big Business has ripped off or abused the indiginous population, and confronting the issue of how to deal with an enormous religious fanaticism movement occurring within Islam–and address these causes with the same assertive commitment.

  4. pat synge

    Why don’t aircraft have a simple EPIRB system that automatically deploys in case of crash landing at sea (or on land). Why does the ‘black box’ sink with the aircraft? Many boats have liferafts with hydrostatic releases that deploy at a certain depth. The technology is simple and inexpensive.

  5. Francisco Mejia

    Just look at the number of variables read per unit of time and see if is possible to transmit them over air waves. This without taking into consideration possible disruption due to environmental events.

    • A.Phil Eayitt

      Aw, c’mon–this is fixable with just an app. Don’t destroy the Cloud…..the cloud of delusion, that is, of people believing Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Fox news–anything except in-depth training and years of experience–makes them masters of the topic they just spent 5 minutes thinking about as they read the article. I just wish someone would post an article on my sore back so I can get even MORE advice from the very same people of what to do about THAT!

  6. Robert Gurganious

    For years now submarines have the ability to luanch a message buoy – in times of distress or just to send a delayed message, or misrepresent their position. This is just a slim cylinder that gets ejected out of a tube.

    There’s no reason the data, that is captured on a blackbox, couldn’t be copied to such a device and, given certain circumstances, this device would be ejected in much the same way. It could be designed to float, could have a parachute attached, could continue to record from the blackbox via wireless for the, supposedly, short time between and ejection and the box being out of range or destroyed, and could function as a beacon as a well as a record.

    Satellites comms are a good idea but, as we’ve all seen by the satellite linkage with flight 370, we’d need many more sats in orbit to have accurate telemetry.

    Just FYI, someone wrote an article yesterday on this same topic –

  7. CloudFan666

    Great idea, oh but hang on – what happens when the communications to the cloud are severed..? Effectively planes already send telemetric data via satellite communication – the Black Box is only generally used for the last few minutes before a major incident and for the cockpit voice recorder. But a nice marketing spin on “the cloud” or as I affectionally like to call it – good old Client-Server.

  8. Preston Stronach

    Wow, an even quicker and easier method of hijacking planes! Is it reasonable to expect that a planes black box that can be accessed via cloud sharing technology not be hacked and used for malicious purposes?

  9. tlambert

    The estimated cost for this system is a third of a billion dollars, per year. Yes, everyone charges too much for bandwidth. And then… it works exactly as well as the transponder system: it reports data until someone turns it off.

    It’d be a lot easier to simply take out the “off” switch, but since they were apparently willing to pull the fuse on the engine status reporting system after it became widely known that the plane was also being tracked that way, they’d probably just pull the fuse, and we’re back to having an off switch.

    • CalifSteve

      Forget the “off” switch and/or circuit breakers – – – With a simple screw driver, I’ll show you how to slide the FDR or CVR out of it’s rack – – – completely disconnected from all power and sources of data – – for that matter – ANY of the other avionics as well. They’re all designed to be easily removed and swapped – – – which, similarly means – they can be disabled –

  10. Fred Dempster

    The cost for one airline alone would approach $300-million a year, even with a 50% reduction in transmission costs… so expense is still and issue.

  11. Jon Unitas

    agreed – what good is a flight data recorder if we can’t even find it. Seems absurd that with a high level either high pressure loss or elevation drop, that expensive box can’t at least squeak out some long/lat coordinates. why does it take disasters like this for gov’t oversee-ers to become proactive.

  12. AvionicsDude

    Well to begin with ACARS is essentially the limited data that would help, but it was turned off. Secondly, the purpose of the black box is accident analysis, not location. On the other hand an EPIRB mounted externally to float in a water impact would be nice.

  13. Kay Cee

    Here’s an ever better idea: Find some writers who actually know something about technology and science. Better yet, find some writers who are not too lazy to do at least minimal research on a topic before spouting some half-baked “idea”.

    Had Ms. Darrow spent even five minutes reading any professional aviation or airline pilot forum. she would not have embarrassed herself or Gigaom with this clueless concept.

  14. Much cheaper and simpler Idea, Just don’t let Pilots have the ability to turn off their ACARS when in flight… That’s a simple code into the current system where if the speed of the aircraft is over the stall speed (this means its flying) it cant be turned off…

  15. Alex Solomon

    Exactly what I was thinking. Store information from the cockpit which is triggered from voice or movement. After the plane lands at its destination, it can all be deleted after 3 days. I am not saying this would serve as a replacement for a blackbox, because it still has very useful features but it will act as a backup in cases like this one.
    There has to be some positive cost advantages associated with cloud storage, we just have to figure out what they are and send them to the airlines or FAA to make it a requirement.

  16. We live in a wired / mobile everywhere 21st century world and we don’t have a shred of evidence on the aircraft whereabouts even after 12 days. Ridiculous situation. Having flight data recorder information real time in a private cloud ( to avoid misuse) is not just the need but also common sense solution.

  17. Jim Haughwout

    The problem is that airplanes cannot connect to “the cloud” when they are more the 12 miles off-shore because there are no cell phone towers. The only option at this point (with existing infrastructure) is SATCOM.

    Unfortunately this is very expensive. Short data bursts cost $0.14-$0.18 each. “Black Boxes” record an enormous amount of data and would be cost prohibitive. Also, SATCOM is lossey: packets are often dropped.

    There is an interesting side idea. Use Titan Drones to set up high-speed networks across the ocean ( At 65,000′ each would be able to cover about a 300-mile radius of higher-speed communications. It would be a lot of infrastructure to set up. However, we could then we call all use WiFi on transoceanic flights and seagoing voyages (and planes and ships could send location and other data much more easily and cost-effectively.

    • Jim, I do agree there are implementation headaches but no one thought of real time share of the flight data recorder even after all the major accidents.
      We are talking of putting humans on Mars and we can not have real time data feed of in flight information? Obviously it is not impossible. Technology exists and the cost could have been a factor. But it is time we do get this resolved.

    • The whole point of black box recorders is they record critical data for the flight and are unstoppable. why was the radar location system switched of on the plane? if you could do that the surely unplugging a cloud connection assuming you could actually make one could likewise be switched off. Then there is the Inmarsat system that picked the plane up why? this indicates it had been activated. This is not normal it is supposed to be a maritime location system activated when it hits sea water. The whole story is still being hidden.

      • SteveCalif

        Inmarsat is the network operator for ACARS which is a data/maintenance reporting mechanism for commercial A/C. Unfortunately, Malaysia Airlines did not subscribe to this service, so the data feed was non-existent in the case of MH370. However, the transmitter for this service appears to have been in the aircraft it’s network “keep alive” signal was pinging the Inmarsat network periodically. Using this signal, we were able to determine that MH370 had to be in the air for at least another 7 hours from the time its transponders were disabled. Fred is confusing this ACARS network with the ELT crash detection mechanism.

  18. mclarenfan1968

    The transmitter can be switched off just like circuit breakers are available for the crew to pull in order to isolate a fire or problem in a real situation. It again comes down to the question ‘can someone switch it off?’.

    If the answer ‘yes’, then whatever ideas you propose regardless of cost, it is USELESS.

    • CalifSteve

      mclarenfan1968 is spot on. It comes down to cost. There are “n” number of tickets offered to you for your next flight. You can spend an addition $10 on your ticket and I’ll improve the data that flows to the world in the 1 in 10,000,000 chance that something goes wrong with your A/C – OR – you can accept a lower price ticket.

      GIven this value proposition – What do you think the overwhelming majority of todays paying pax will opt to do?

      These ideas are with merit and address the frustration of those of us who seek answers but – they completely ignore the very challenging economic realities of the airline business (post deregulation).

  19. Md. Tauseef Anwar

    I had a debate on Facebook with my friends over this concept few days into the MH370 incident. Let’s see what they say about it now!

    According to one, the benefits of such a system ( I even proposed video footage/snap shots being streamed to a cloud) would not be able to overcome the costs. And secondly, according to him, one or two incidents don’t justify complete overhaul of the current systems. Apparently no buy-in for airlines.

    I think after 3 weeks, if we are still looking for cost-benefit analysis or buy-ins, we are just crazy.