2017 CEO Letter to FLYHT Shareholders: Aircraft Tracking, Part 2
June 5, 2017
Subject: Aircraft Tracking, Space Based ADS-B, and Timely Access to Flight Recorder Data, Part 2
Dear Shareholders and Interested Parties;
This is part 2 of a letter published on April 26, 2017. Part 1 of this letter discussed International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulatory activities, air traffic control surveillance, aircraft tracking solutions and the value that FLYHT’s Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRSTM) provides aircraft operators.
This part of the letter will explore Amendment 40: Timely Access to Flight Recorder Information. This ICAO performance-based requirement specifies that by 2021 new aircraft type designs make the flight recorder data available in a timely manner.
Performance-based rules prescribe a result and do not dictate an implementation method, allowing industry to achieve the rule in the most efficient means possible, on a case by case basis.
The intent of this Timely Access to Flight Recorder Information is to resolve the problems recently encountered. The Air France AF447 disaster occurred in 2009 when this flight entered a high-altitude stall and crashed into the ocean at the mid-Atlantic Ridge; killing all on board. The search for the aircraft and recovery of its cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders, together known as “black boxes”, took approximately two years. Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 went missing in 2014 and investigators do not know what became of the aircraft and its 239 people. It is paramount for accident investigators to get the black boxes as soon as possible because they are the primary data source. Without the data from the recorders, the accident investigators have difficulty piecing together the facts of the incidents.
So, industry is faced with this prescriptive requirement – how do we get the accident investigators started immediately, without necessarily securing the black boxes themselves?
There are thought to be two primary implementation options to begin investigating the cockpit voice and flight data immediately following an incident. The first, and from FLYHT’s perspective the superior solution, is to stream the recorder data from the aircraft while it is in flight. The second, more challenging solution, is to fit aircraft with deployable recorders; recorders which eject while the aircraft is in flight or as it is crashing. It is likely that both approaches will be pursued by industry.
The deployable recorder is intellectually intriguing, but is wrought with challenges. Having the full content of the recorder (25 hours of flight data and 2 hours of cockpit voice) shortly after the accident is very desirable. However, the system can deploy at the wrong time over populated areas and could strike flight surfaces at certain aircraft attitudes, compounding the challenges the aircraft is facing. If the incident occurs in mountainous or difficult to access terrain, the deployable does no good and may in fact make recovery more difficult. Practically, to install the device, a part of the exterior skin of the aircraft must be redesigned and replaced because the typical design approach is to form an airfoil to “fly” the recorder away from the aircraft. The deployable recorder floats in water, has a GPS receiver and a satellite communication transmitter to broadcast its location so it can be retrieved. This system is very expensive, particularly for retrofit solutions. The safety and practical aspects of the deployable recorder make it an awkward solution for the problem, particularly in this “always connected” age we live in. It is old thinking; an old concept of operations.
Streaming data from an aircraft offers the value of not only knowing where your aircraft is, but also knowing what is going on in the aircraft, always. Whether the streamed data is a result of a “trigger,” (an event that turns on the streaming of data when it is recognized something is wrong) or if data is simply streamed throughout flight, having immediate access to this data on a specific, secure server is the ideal scenario for accident investigators to being their evaluation of what has happened.
Concerns have been raised regarding the security of the streamed data either during transmission or storage; as well as concerns over access, privacy and cost. These concerns are reasonable, but solutions exist. Securing the transport of digital information is actively studied and current networking technology continues to be refined and improved to protect commercial and privacy interests. Securing data during storage is also a very active area of investment and development. Access rules can be defaulted to be the same as those currently employed for flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR) when installed on aircraft. The FDR data is routinely downloaded after flights occur and is broadly used in Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and other activities. CVR data can be triggered so it only streams in response to an event. Alternatively, the erase button in the cockpit could mark segments to erase post-flight if there are no incidents during flight, as is the case currently with the CVR. Costs for satellite airtime continue to drop and become more feasible over time as more satellites are launched, compressions schemes improve, and transmission prioritization controls are implemented.
Streaming data to augment the on-board FDR and CVR is an important next step to satisfy Amendment 40: Timely Access to Flight Recorder Information requirement. FLYHT Aerospace Solutions has offered commercialized data streaming through our FLYHTStreamTM application for several years. Our system currently uses the Iridium constellation which offers global coverage, but limited bandwidth. Other satellite solutions, such as Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband offer much larger pipes to send more data, faster if required. Iridium is launching “Next,” higher bandwidth, replacement low earth orbit satellites to provide alternatives to Inmarsat. Other Satcom technologies exist as well. FLYHT is forging partnerships and investigating different ways to enhance the industry leading technology that we currently offer to provide solutions to meet both Autonomous Distress Tracking and Timely Access to Flight Recorder Information requirements in a system that saves operators money, streamlines operations and proactively enhances safety.
Best regards –
Thomas R. Schmutz