Inexpensive real-time FDR system developed by California firm

Thompson Flt Test

The flight test pattern of a Thompson Aerospace real-time data transmission on a Boeing airplane. Click on image to enlarge.

June 14, 2016, © Leeham Co.: Egyptair Flight MS804 disappeared from radar May 19 and there is very little known about the last minutes of the flight at this writing.

A French ship two weeks ago reported hearing pings on the same frequency as the flight’s black boxes. As yet, the pinging hasn’t been confirmed as being from those boxes (remember the false alarm on the Malaysia Airlines MH370 search). The main wreckage and these boxes have yet to be discovered.

With the designed 30-day battery life of the pinger expiring just days away, this is yet another example of why real-time transmission of flight data from the airplane to the ground is needed.

As with MH370, followed by Air Asia Flight 8501 (whose boxes and wreckage were eventually discovered and recovered), the mystery surrounding MS804 spur new calls for action to provide real-time data streaming of a flight’s important information about the performance of the airplane and any anomalies.

Airbus officials aid during their Innovation Days presentations last week they are studying real-time data streaming. ICAO, the international organization the sets rules and requirements for the world’s airlines, has moved slowly since MH370 but now appears ready by year-end to establish requirements and deadlines for real-time data streaming.

Cost and bandwidth have been cited as principal obstacles to overcome.

But a small company in California says the technology is here today at an affordable cost, and it is fully compliant with ICAO standards.

20160603 Tracking and Alerts

Thompson Aerospace system for real-time data transmission. Click on image to enlarge.

Thompson Aerospace of Irvine “has developed the first fully ICAO compliant aircraft tracking (SGATS),” says Craig Jones, vice president of development. “Had MH370 or Egypt Air be equipped with the SGATS there would be no mystery today.”

Mark Thompson, president of the firm, said current efforts and proposals are slogging along because “the main problem with the costs is they are trying to use their existing products.”

Thompson Aerospace developed a technology that uses a cell phone-like device via a satellite radio.

“This gathers all the data all the time and if any data is out of tolerance, we send an alert,” the president said.

The unit uses less than three watts. “We give a service level agreement, the customer pays a one-time set up fee $10,000 per plane and gets Wi-Fi hardware support for a fixed price $100/mo as long as you own that aircraft. If regulatory guys change the rules, we replace the hardware at our cost,” Thompson said.

The device can also send messages currently using ACARS for substantially lower cost to the airline, he said.

The devices will use the Iridium satellites. Thompson Aerospace is working with Amazon on security, the president said. The company is close to receiving the Supplement Type Certificate. Unidentified airlines in the US and UK are the first customers, installing the system on Boeing 767s and 777s.

“When you read the ICAO recommendations, four areas are causing the big boys problems which Thompson has overcome,” said Jones, the Thompson vice president:

  1. The ability to stream real time Flight Data Recorder parameters in Distressed mode.
  2. The ability to operate autonomously (complete aircraft power loss)
  3. Secure the data in order to validate the data has not been altered.
  4. Ability to trigger alerts from ground and on ability to shutoff from the flight deck.


“Thompson developed a completely new product, flight tested in June 2015 and will be operational with our first STC on 767 and 777 in about end of June. There is never a reason for an aircraft to disappear again and the cost to the airline is very small,” Jones said.

“The real problem is trying to use current systems and modify or add capability,” he said. “First, most use too much power such as satcom or the crew has the ability to shut off such as ADS-B. But building in Iridium and latest technology micro-electronics the Thomson module uses only 2-3 watts in normal operation and has all the capability to collect all required parameters independently.

“We also have patented the use of hardware security for commercial aircraft providing a secure link between the aircraft and ground but also on board which can prevent hackers either on board or ground based from attacking aircraft. How we accomplish this is totally unique to commercial aviation but not in other industries,” Jones said.

Airbus is exploring ways to provide real-time data streaming. The greatest challenge is bandwidth and the cost, Airbus said at its Innovation Days briefings last month in Hamburg, both areas Thompson says it has overcome.

Airbus is also considering an ejection mechanism for the flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Thompson said it will soon have CVR transmission capabilities in addition to the current FDR transmission.

“Boeing is fully supportive of global tracking and the recent ICAO amendments,” spokesman Doug Alder Jr. wrote in an email. “We endorse a coordinated, international approach to ensure harmonization of global aviation safety regulations.

“To that end, Boeing actively participates in efforts to develop effective and efficient international standards. The ICAO amendments provide a performance-based standard, rather than one based on prescriptive technical solutions. This allows solutions for global tracking to evolve with technology.”

Blue Sky Network of La Jolla (CA) has published a 28-page white paper on the issues. It may be downloaded here.

5 Comments on “Inexpensive real-time FDR system developed by California firm

  1. The situation is that you don’t need to spew data all the time, a position every 30 seconds would probably be good, maybe 15.

    Or every minute and fast update with data anomalies or cutoff of the power (deliverer or as a result of a terrorist act doing so)

    The main issue is getting to the wreckage fast and getting the black box data.

    Having it jump to a fast dump rate for ACARs data when alarm events occur is a very good move as well, but you don’t need that for routine.

    I see no reason you can’t select trigger events that are relevant to any in flight crisis.

    • “The situation is that you don’t need to spew data all the time, a position every 30 seconds would probably be good, maybe 15. ”

      – May also depend on the flight position. i.e. whether it is flying through remote areas where other types of coverage is limited. No need to spam data near populated areas for instance.

      • I guess how much complexity do you want to add?

        As they fly from very populated (along Med) to middle of Med.

        I am for the KISS, location data stored and then deleted at some time line. Redundancy so it can’t be erased by accident.

        And one item not brought up that needs to be Cockpit Video.

        Per the spaceship 2 accident, it maeks total clear what action was taken. YOu may not know why, but clear it was and is.

        I keep reading about the data is taken from the pilots side, not the flight officers side, what is taken when and its, huh.

        It should be complete from both sides, not cherry picked.

        All this has occurred as a progressive accident, not a designed rom the ground up system that is adjusted per experience.

        Each input should have its own data log, flying, non flying or the pink alien in the ceiling on his Smartphone.

        • Flyht Aerospace has had a solution available for a number of years already with their AFIRS 228, already installed on over 400 planes globally and already has STC’s for 95% of planes flying commercially…it has been adopted by a number of small airlines. The cost of the solution pays for itself through increased operational efficiencies, and will stream black box data in the case of emergencies. AFIRS is now an option of the Airbus 320 assembly line.

  2. “With the designed 30-day battery life of the pinger expiring just days away, this is yet another example of why real-time transmission of flight data from the airplane to the ground is needed.” And as it happens, within three days of the posting, both data recorders have been located and recovered.

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