data recorders of flight

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Air travel is one of the most common modes of transportation worldwide. It is swift and has become less expensive over the years as more low-cost options have appeared in the sky. A plane crash, on the other hand, is almost invariably deadly, with the majority of those on board dying as a result of the impact. In certain situations, such as the recent Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, an airplane may vanish without a trace, especially if it crashes into the vast ocean (Karimi 2017). Over the years, the Flight Data Recorder has been a vital instrument in facilitating advancements in air safety. It has provided data and insights on what has caused accidents and what to do to prevent future incidents. One shortcoming of the flight data recorder, however, is that it has to be tracked and retrieved before it can be useful in any aircraft accident investigation.

In this Essay, I will examine a Flight Data Recorder, its significance, the major components, its characteristics, as well as potential future trends that could improve its operation and usefulness.

The Black Box

Flight recorders in an aircraft are invaluable for investigators. The can provide insights on factors that led to an accident. Usually, flight recorders consist on two separate boxes, including a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and a flight data recorder (FDR) (ATSB 2014). Although flight recorders are often referred to as “black boxes,” they are in fact orange in color. Orange color is bright and would be easier to spot and retriever following an accident (ATSB 2014).

Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR)

A more apt name for the CVR would be a “cockpit audio recorder.” This is because the CVR offers more than just a recording of the voices of the pilots. The CVR provides are recording of the entire audio environment of the cockpit. This may include conversations among the crew, aural alarms, control adjustments and movements, radio transmissions, switch activations, airflow noise, as well as engine noise (ATSB 2014). Older cockpit voice recorders retain audio files covering the last half-hour of a flight, while modern versions retain up to two hours of information (ATSB 2014). The latest information has priority over older information, according to the “endless loop principle.” Since approximately 80% of aircraft accidents are attributable to human error, cockpit voice recorders often provide critical insights on why an accident happened (ATSB 2014).

Flight Data Recorder (FDR)

While the cockpit voice recorder collects data on the audio environment, the flight data recorder captures flight parameters. The data captured by a flight data recorder is diverse, depending on the type and size of the aircraft. Nevertheless, a flight data recorder will at least capture information from five major parameter groups, including indicated airspeed, pressure altitude, magnetic heading, normal acceleration, and microphone keying (ATSB 2014). Microphone keying, which refers to the time when the crew made radio transmissions, is critical for comparison with data in the cockpit voice recorder, in case of an accident (ATSB 2014). Today, aircraft are fitted with FDRs that can record thousands of parameters associated with various aspects of airplane operation. An FDR captures up to the last 25 hours of a flight, operating on the endless-loop principles. The FDR will offer accident investigators with insights of what took place in the course of an accident sequence, as well as the events leading up to it (ATSB 2014).

Data Storage and Installation

The first CVRs were analogue based and made use of magnetic tape as the recording medium. Modern versions, however, make use of memory chips to store digitized information. The first CVR and FDR tools were installed in aircraft in the 1960s, following the increased uptake of commercial air-travel and increased incidences that remained unresolved (ATSB 2014). Flight recording tools are often installed on the tail of an aircraft. This is because it has been determined that the tail region suffers the least damage following an accident (ATSB 2014).

Flight recording devices are usually designed to withstand impact at high speed, as well as post-accident fires. However, they are sometimes not indestructible and may be destroyed. Consequently, the recorders are designed with the aim of safeguarding the integrity of the recording media and data rather than the recorders surviving impact. An impact and fire-resistant container, therefore, houses the data storage media. In addition, every recorder is fitted with an Underwater Location Beacon (ULB) to facilitate retrieval in case an accident occurs in a water body. The ULB is battery-powered. Upon immersion in water, it emits an acoustic signal, which may be received and converted into an audible signal. In some cases, the ULB is referred to as a ‘pinger,’ since the receiver can transform the signal into an audible signal (ATSB 2014).

Future Trends

A major shortcoming of the current versions of flight data recorders is that they have to be retrieved before they can be useful to airplane accident investigators or policymakers. This implies that if the flight data recorder of any flight is not retrieved following a crash, then the cause of a crash will potentially remain a mystery for years to come. Retrieving flight data recorders from hostile environments such as the ocean can be a very costly affair. Although the devices can withstand excessive pressure and temperature, the underwater location beacon only emits a signal for a period of 30 days. Afterwards, investigators have to rely on previous radar data to locate the crash site.

Air crash investigations can be a very expensive undertaking, particularly where the flight data recorder cannot be located, as is the case with Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, three years later (Karimi, 2017). They often require multi-agency co-operation across international borders to be successful, and massive resources. In order to minimize the time it takes to retrieve flight data and resolve air accidents, some aviation experts have proposed that flight data could be uploaded wirelessly into remote devices or “the cloud” via satellites (Yu 2015, p. 1949). They argue that the technology is advanced and that it is time to adopt its use for flight data recorders.

Conclusion

Airplanes are one of the most popular forms of travel. However, air crashes are often fatal. The data recorded in “black boxes” are essential in recreating events prior to a crash, or understanding what led to a crash. This information facilitates gradual improvements to air travel safety.

A flight recorder or a black box consists of two components. The Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder, which record the audio environment in the cockpit and flight parameters, respectively. The devices are often constructed from material that will withstand impact at high speed, or post-impact fires. The device is also waterproof and will withstand deep-sea high-pressure forces. Aviation experts are currently exploring the introduction of Flight Data Recorders that wirelessly upload the recorded data in real-time to “the cloud” or to remote storage devices via satellite. This could significantly decrease recovery time and ensure that the data is never lost.

Although “black boxes” may not prevent air crashes, they provide critical data that can be used to improve air safety in the future.

References

ATSB, 2014. Black Box Flight Recorders. [Online] Available at: https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/2014/black-box-flight-recorders/

Hunt, J., 2014. The Flight-Data Recorder's Slow Evolution. [Online] Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-flight-data-recorders-slow-evolution[Accessed 24 July 2017].

Karimi, F., 2017. MH370: Here's What's Been Found from Jetliner 3 Years after it Disappeared. [Online] Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/08/asia/mh370-debris-found/index.html[Accessed 24 July 2017].

Yu, Y. J., 2015. The Aftermath of the Missing Flight MH30: What Can Engineers Do?. Proceedings of the IEEE, 103(11), pp. 1948-1951.

October 25, 2022
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