Black box recorders reinvented to live-stream data

Curtiss-Wright and Honeywell join forces to launch connected flight recorder

Two major manufacturers of airplane flight recorders – commonly known as black box recorders, despite the fact they are usually orange – are partnering to reinvent the device to live-stream data.

Aviation technology firms Curtiss-Wright and Honeywell announced they will be working together towards an “entirely new way for airlines to monitor and analyse flight data” using “real-time connectivity”.

The kind of flight recorders used today – which record both instrument readings and the voices in the cockpit – were initially conceived of in 1953, by research scientist David Warren, while working at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, in Melbourne.

The design soon featured a fire-resistant, water and shock-proof casing, and ground-based decoding device.

A 1985 interview with David Warren by the ABC:

All commercial aircraft above a certain size today must have a flight recorder and voice recorder, be they separate devices or combined into one. Australia, was the first country to make cockpit-voice recording compulsory, following the 1960 crash of Trans Australia Airlines Flight 538 at Mackay, Queensland.

Save for the recording format and addition of underwater locator beacons to the outer casing – the basic design has not changed significantly since. And it’s proved a problem.

Too often in accidents, the black box recorders take months or years to be recovered prompting calls for the boxes to jettison themselves and float on water so they can be more easily found. Sometimes – as is the case with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – the devices remain with the wreckage and are never retrieved.

Curtiss-Wright and Honeywell will jointly develop the hardware for the “next generation” black boxes, with Honeywell developing software capabilities for “easier access to real-time data during flight”.

“This will provide aircraft owners, operators and manufacturers with new voice and flight data recording options to help decrease aircraft downtime through better predictive maintenance and, in the unlikely event of an emergency, help with the subsequent investigation,” the companies said in a joint statement.

The new boxes will be connected via ‘current and future’ global satellite networks, communicating with a dedicated Honeywell data centre.

“This new recorder will serve as a ‘Black Box in the Sky’ meaning owners, operators and manufacturers will have the option to access the data at all times, resulting in the potential for better maintenance predictability and operational insight through data analytics. In addition, in the event of an emergency, the data on board will be quickly accessible to investigators,” the statement read.

The new recorders will come in a number of variants, including standalone flight recorders and voice recorders, and all-in-one boxes.

“Honeywell and Curtiss-Wright have long been pioneers and innovators of crash protected recorders, providing flight data recorders to the industry for over 50 years,” said Curtiss-Wright CEO David Adams.

“Working together, we will take flight data recorder connectivity and performance to new heights, with extended operation and greater survivability. Bringing our combined experience to the marketplace will generate financial, safety and operational benefits for years to come,” he added.

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