Pontifications: ICAO continues to drag feet on real-time data transmission

Hamilton KING5_2

By Scott Hamilton

May 23, 2016, © Leeham Co.: Malaysia Airlines MH370. Air Asia 8501. Egyptair 804.

Three passenger flights lost over the oceans. One, MH370, remains undiscovered to this day. Air Asia took a couple of weeks to locate. Egyptair debris took about 36 hours. The black boxes are still  missing from MH370. Once the Air Asia wreckage was discovered, the boxes were recovered fairly quickly. According to media reports, the black boxes of 804 have been “generally” located, but Egypt has dispatched a submarine to more precisely locate them.

The absence of real-time data transmission from the Flight Data Recorders contributed to the mysteries of what happened to these aircraft and spurred wild theories and conspiracies. ACARS, which does transmit data from airborne aircraft, does so at intervals–not real-time. Real-time data streaming from on board transmissions could provide immediate answers to what happened to an airliner.

Flight data recorders are so good today that these can detect increased pressure associated with an explosion. These, of course, can detect depressurization. The data could tell investigators why Flight 804 descended from 37,000 ft to 15,000 ft and then to 10,000 ft, and veered left, then right in a 360 pattern. Was there a decompression, causing the pilots to make an emergency descent before losing control? Did pilots have control at all? Was there an explosion? According to media reports (to be taken skeptically), US satellites didn’t detect a flare that might suggest one.

Was there a struggle in the cockpit between pilots and hijackers, like Ethiopian Airlines flight 961, ending in a crash? Real-time data streaming might have told us.

Was something else responsible for 804’s crash?

ACARS transmissions indicate there was smoke in the forward lav, the electronics bay and the cockpit. Some talking heads said this indicated a fire or even a “conflagration.” Nothing I’ve heard through yesterday confirmed open flames. Real-time data transmission would have recorded the temperature in the airplane, confirming fire or not.

Recovery of the FDR and cockpit voice recorders will give us these answers. But what if they are not recovered? The depth of the Sea at the crash site is about 10,000 ft. The clock is ticking on the 30-day battery lives of the FDR and CVR.

The point of real-time data streaming is that it would remove a lot of the doubt and speculation that accompanied 370, 8501 and now 804. In today’s world of terrorism, quickly confirming or disabusing these suspicions is important.

Irresponsible media speculation only fans fears. LNC puts up the same list of areas of investigation after each crash in an attempt to bring some sanity and context to probes. Then you get those who don’t know anything about anything, including government officials in France and Egypt and #MotormouthTrump, who make declarations that terrorism is responsible. They may turn out to be right. But it’s too soon to conclude such based on the dearth of information we have.

We could have real-time data streaming if the airline industry would take its head out of its tail-pipe. ICAO, the international organization that covers these things, still hasn’t mandated real-time data streaming, three years after MH370. The aviation industry is infamous for its tombstone mentality. How many more lives have to be lost before this change is made?

This won’t prevent a crash, to be sure. But it will aid in search and rescue/recovery, investigators and law enforcement. It should reduce the irresponsible media speculation.


38 Comments on “Pontifications: ICAO continues to drag feet on real-time data transmission

  1. “It should reduce the irresponsible media speculation.” That hardly seems likely. Look what they have done with the non-real-time ACARS information. The media spread irresponsible speculation to satisfy our impatient, voyeuristic desire to “know” and know “now.” Real-time data streaming doesn’t eliminate our desire, only feed it.

    • “It should reduce the irresponsible media speculation.” That hardly seems likely. Look what they have done with the non-real-time ACARS information. The media spread irresponsible speculation to satisfy our impatient, voyeuristic desire to “know” and know “now.” Real-time data streaming doesn’t eliminate our desire, only feed it.

      Fully agree. Generally, the main priority should be to find the cause of a crash, not to give the media (and their customers) what they are looking for.
      If you had real-time info there’d be the same sort of nonsense speculation – except probably much more of it.
      The problem isn’t just that information isn’t available quickly enough, but that information isn’t (properly) contextualised and interpreted.

  2. I also doubt that it will have such a big impact. Yes, the data would be available a bit earlier. But it still needs proper analysis and this will take time. And depending on the country, the investigation authority might or might not release the data at all. Indonesia is not very known to release data, while other countries are probably more open (see the Germanwings crash).

    I believe, it would make any investigation even harder, as all the media would press hard for the data to be release immediately, not allowing enough time for a proper analysis…

    So far, I believe with very few exceptions, all black boxes have been found and been able to recover the data, no? It’s just some time advantage that is currently missing, but it won’t break or make any kind of big leap in my opinion.

  3. Scott – I fully agree with your view.
    I would ask however, if the airline industry would pick this up by themselves on a voluntary basis. I understand that real time data systems are available to be installed now.
    Any airline wishing to protect it’s reputation would see that investing in technology that avoids the guessing and speculation, which would easily justify the cost.
    Another alternative would be for multiple digital devices storing information (4 per plane) that recorded data on an iPod-like device (cheap and plentiful). These devices would be on the outside of the plane and either ejected after a 5G shock, in contact with salt water or when fully submerged in water. So if one came adrift accidentally, it would be cheap and easy to replace. Unlike the current heavy, expensive orange boxes. Even converting an existing iPod to record the data would be relatively easy.

    • If you have real time data you don’t need extra hard to maintain and costly devices that may or may not work.

      Said data can be continuous or it can be triggered by pre determined events.

    • Your ideas align with what seems a practical workaround to (a) the need for data and (b) the insistence of industry players to avoid spending money on a continuous data feed. It costs virtually nil to compile the data onboard; the costs supposedly accumulate in doing feeds for every second of the flight, and on flights that normally proceed with an incredible monotonous boredom.

      So, what stops us from using the existing technologies to accumulate the data onboard, but not transmit until certain anomalous parameters are met? I.e., if a regular flight profile or cockpit environmental profile is breached (a parameter threshold is crossed), transmission proceeds immediately, giving real time data AND perhaps even uploading accumulated/stored data back to a minute or so before the threshold was crossed.

      • I would guess data storage for a whole flight becomes an issue but I could be wrong.

        They do extract some or all data at the end.

        And its not my idea, its one proposed and I believe actually being used by some already. Just passing it on as it seem to be a practical solution or at least interim.

        All that data has to go someplace and be stored or passed on and that costs a lot for routine flights which are 99.99%.

        It does create handling, storage and cost issues to handle that much data.

  4. The media seem to latch on to anything however implausible. Even the normally sensible BBC was reporting that the Egyptair A320 in question had to make an emergency landing due to an engine problem – three years ago! Was it relevant? they speculated!

  5. “Real-time data streaming from on board transmissions could provide immediate answers to what happened to an airliner.”

    Would it save lives?

    • depends on how time critical the incident is.

      Terrorist maybe as you would know that Shark El Sham had been penetrated and there could be more device being put on board.

      Failures per the DC10 would get wider publicity and maybe correction before more died.

      Generally probably not but it would not hurt either.

    • Keesje, if the information of a crash showed a real critical fault or design issue, counter measures could be taken quickly and yes, in some cases, lives or at least a similar upset can be avoided.

  6. Go one step further, it’s time for cameras in the cockpit.

    • Go one step further, it’s time for cameras in the cockpit.

      Yeay, increase the amount of data bandwidth required (when even real-time transmission of much more basic data is a challenge) while drastically narrowing down the usefulness of the data transmitted.

      • I didn’t say it needed to be transmitted somewhere else but if that could be done, it would be idea. Nearly every city bus and transit vehicle in the US has multiple cameras yet much more complex airplanes don’t have them. Makes zero sense. Pilots feel it’s an invasion of privacy. They need to get over it and get on board reality in 2016.

        • For now yes. Future, maybe. But as noted by dave, you can store it on board, other than MH370 all aircraft have been recovered that have crashed (large) in the last 50 years?

    • David – yes agree – however, you will need to convince the pilot unions of this- they are the ones stopping this.

      • Another reason to hate unions. An archaic relic of another time. t

    • “Go one step further, it’s time for cameras in the cockpit.”

      Why stop there? If we have cameras on city busses, and cameras on street corners and in ATMs and George-only-knows where else, why not put them in the cabin too? Might as well go ahead and fully get on board with 2016 and embrace the surveillance society…

      • Now you are being sarcastic. Adding cameras to the cockpit would help investigators. What are you afraid of? Finding out the truth?

        • Sarcastic perhaps but the trend seems clear. In the name of safety people are calling for ever more surveillance. It isn’t clear to me they are being careful what they are wishing for.

          • Maybe not, but on the other hand what people do and get away with because no one has a handle on whats going on and can connect the dots is?

            When I was a kid, we could tell you who was doing what and when, small station living.

            I don’t go so far as to blame unions, I think its a good thing to negotiate but I am fully on the side of cameras.

            The camera in Spaceship put all the speculation as to what happened to rest. The Co pilot clearly activated it deliberately and with intent. That let the investigation get to the core or the problem

            Problem was none of it had been rehearsed, they were winging it which is really bad anytime let alone in a new aircraft. He obviously did not want to wait until too late so he jumped the gun.

            Interlock and much better training.

      • Not a bad idea actually. It’s a public space, so you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of privacy. Would help help deter and prosecute unruly passengers. Pilots could see what was going on behind the door in case of a serious incident. Also could be useful with baggage theft incidents.

        • We are talking cockpit cameras only , cameras on the plane pax area are a non regulated (contract) aspect (attendants may have some say)

  7. Quote: “Would it save lives?”
    I am with Keesje here. Would streaming thousands and thousands of regular flights provide a benefit? We have ACARS maintenance messages,
    QAR downloads and do we need this to? Just to feed the headline hungry media? The data needs to be analyzed by competent investigators, not journalists or doubtful “aviation experts” (Mary Schiavo?).
    As to cameras in the cockpit, as long as CVR recordings remain unprotected,
    pilots will not accept those. I would “accidentally” drop my chewing gum on the lens. Ooops.

    • It can be triggered pr pre set parameters as well. Its not one or the other but it should be implemented

  8. Scott,

    your thoughts that we have the facility to transmit information during a catastrophic event is flawed. From sensors, power, computer processing to transmission, the liklihood is that something will hiccup and then no time to restart.

    The flight recorders are the answer. There is activity to put ULD on the structure, to extend to 90 days, to use 8.8 kHz.

    Plus there is a lot to locate the aircraft position. That is the real reason we have not found the MH370 recorders.

    you might enjoy my blog on these issues.


    • An independent transmitter that actives on loss of power is one part of the solution set.

      If the rest works good, if not, then a location gets transmitted which would handle any kind of in flight breakup.

      Certainly better than the ELBs.

  9. Some of the suggestions about all the data would increase costs and complexity significantly (though I have to admit, I’ve little idea about Satellite communications costs), but even just to transmit some very limited data, such as location, speed and direction every 15s or so would be a huge advance, and would allow lost aircraft and their important black box data to be recovered far more quickly.

    • That’s all you really do need though you can work on it as time goes by.

      Also a data dump when an issue occurs that allows as much current data out can be a huge help

      Its not all or nothing, you can tune it to workable.

  10. I do not think that the data will stop any rampant speculations, the rants and raves and agenda will go on, if you look at MH370, each time a fact gets published the lunatics just shift a bit and go off again. No stopping it (other than on blogs and cutting them or it off)

    It will get to the crash site sooner, start recovery and get close enough to get the pinger data (if its working) so that the recovery can occur and that’s the important aspect.

    It would also allow quick time assessment if its a long term (AF447 and trying to teach pilots not to muck it up) or a short term issue (Terrorist or a failure item per the 737 rudders, DC10s, 787 Battery that needs immediate attention.)

  11. GADSS as discussed by airlines as we speak and mandated on new aircraft by 2021, bursts data at the time e.g. decent is too fast, g’s too high etc. Independent (power/data) from other systems and can ‘t be switched off by crew.

  12. Agree entirely with Leehamnews View in this topic.
    It does not make any sense, with all the technology available, that MH370 is still missing and no one has a firm clue of what went wrong or happened, except many (some bizarre) theories, including ET Abduction. It is high time to sort it out, we need to be able to find the approximate location of a missing plane, as fast as an accident is reported.

    • I would amend that we need specific location not general.

      General is established, its not close enough.

      In the case of MH370 general is someplace in the Southern Indian Ocean, far to broad.

      Back in the day aircraft just disappeared. I can think of one between US and Hawaii and a couple more between Caribbean and Europe (large pax, other aircraft disappear all the time, Alaska is littered with them)

  13. You are right TransWorld, I said approximate due to the fact that unfortunately the last transmition is seldom the last impact position and I recall the sad tragedy of AF 447 in the coast of Brazil, but even so, the location although not exact, was so close that it allowed a quick assessment of the wreckage location.

    Best Regards!

  14. The time may well have come.

    Do have to get it right if a standard is being developed.

    Questions include how much data and how often. Tracking – the need for finding MH370 – may not need frequent tx to get close enough for a reasonable search, hourly from the creative analysis of handshaking without data was obviously not good enough. The location of Egyptair is known but that’s due to Greek radar, no coverage in oceanic/remote, but CPDLC is being used increasingly. Air France in the central Atlantic is a case in between those. In both cases system data is needed for cause analysis especially if recorders not found.

    Maintenance messages helped, but of course MH370 was not transmitting those when out of VHF range.

    Much is doable, Delta was probably txing data from 767s circa 1994 – I was involved with testing, engine monitoring data sent via HF DataLink from mid-Atlantic, and baseball scores sent back. Not much bandwidth (1200bps) but how much is needed to get something serious going?

    “Real-time” has to be defined – the FDR rate of recording may not be necessary.

    Bandwidth can be expanded later as experience is gained with processing the data and with losses (hopefully none though).

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