Aircraft Safety Data
Safety needs drive technology and sometimes technology provides solutions which will reduce risk. The two below stories exemplify how high level research by major corporations and innovation by a high school student may respond to a present need.
The mysteries surrounding MH 370 and MS 804 have caused the international community of safety regulators to look for ways in which to recover the data needed to identify causes. The debate has included considerations of costs and feasibility, but there has been no resolution yet.
Executives from major aerospace companies spoke to an audience, primarily the press, about the future implications for connected aircraft operations. They recognized the present potential of global connectivity via satellites, but the representatives from Boeing and Inmarsat explained the limitation extant in installing the on-board equipment, launching the satellites and making the system function at the high level required. Stephen Call, Boeing Commercial Airplanes manager for the technical center for connectivity, pointed out
“The airlines are telling us that, through the life of a plane, they will have to take this consumer electronics technology and they will have to take it out and change it five to seven times throughout the life of the plane. So, one of the challenges that they have given us is how can we build an airplane that will better enable them to make the changes for a 20 to 25 year old airframe to deal with the consumer electronics that have a life span of 3 to 7 years in there.
When we first got into putting connectivity onto the plane, we basically took an existing system and made it fit. And we learned really rapidly the amount of work required to do that was something that we could not sustain; to take everyone’s system and make it fit. So, with active work within industry, there is an ARINC 791 committee that we are working with that establishes provision commonality for wiring and tooling and we adopted that and allow those standards on our plane. When we go out to the supply base now we say here are the provisions on the plane, and we expect you to fit into those provisions.”
The Boeing theme of working for standardization is a predicate, Call said, for introducing the next generation of phase array antenna.
Inmarsat Vice President for Aviation Strategy Frederick Van Essen added his observations:
“They [the airlines] are confused about a lot of messages that are being put out there by everybody in the industry, and they are getting a bit sick and tired of the claim game that is out there with everybody promising the next thing around the corner to be 100 times or a million times better than what is out there today. And I think what it boils down to now is to actually demonstrate and show the airlines what is out there now and what they can get.
GX has been designed as a system that can be scaled up in the future. What has been put in place today is a base layer to cover the world, and from there on we can expand. Ka band is where there is room to grow…We feel that even with the targeted baseline capacity, you cannot serve in the end the really dense regions of the world. That is why we have branched out also in Europe with the European Aviation Network, a combination of satellite with a ground-based complementary network, using antennas on the ground pointed upward using 4G LTE technology which is actually pretty similar to what you have on the ground but then it’s adapted to aviation. And that puts a tremendous amount of additional capacity at your disposal.”
The panelists felt that late 2017 or early 2018 would be a target date for aircraft with GX capabilities.
Creating additional data transmission capacity might provide a media to transfer the next level of data which the safety regulators seek.
Another potential source for innovation comes from the less expected source, Tucson, AZ high school 15-year-old Jeremiah Pate. The young pilot carefully watched the recent loss of airframes and inability to access the black boxes and resolved to figure out a solution. His reasoning reflects the brilliance of uncluttered thinking of youth:
“’I thought in my head, how can we track a rover on Mars within a centimeter, yet we can lose an airplane in our own backyard?’
‘I’m a pilot, so I know the importance of having information, GPS coordinates and what not, so that’s when I started thinking about this. I thought, well if Malaysia 370 went down, what do we have in place now and how can we prevent this from happening again?’
Pate says his device compresses the data on board and when something goes wrong, it transmits it all in one packet to ground control, which also compresses the cost.
‘Streaming not just video, but any mechanical input continuously.. that’s a huge cost, out of satellite or what not, so it stores all this information on board and then when something goes wrong, it sends that data down,’ explained Pate.”
It will be interesting to see if young Mr. Pate’s invention will serve this very important safety need.
Added capacity from the likes of Boeing and Inmarsat plus the Pate Black Box may help resolve this urgent accident investigation need at lower costs and greater reliability.