Why the Black Box Debate Isn’t Over

Flight Data Recorder Flying

I'm wondering: Will Honeywell’s announcement that it's acquiring airborne satcom system specialist EMS Technologies reignite calls for airlines to transmit live flight-data information rather than relying on what can be obtained from black boxes found at a crash site?

Here's why I ask: Honeywell is the maker of the flight data recorder used aboard doomed Air France Flight 447. EMS Technologies is the world's leading supplier of the type of satellite communications gear that could be used to beam flight-related information to airline data centers on the ground.

Honeywell’s acquisition of EMS Technologies, of course, has little if anything to do with the possibilities for live transmission of flight data from stricken airliners – but a number of industry experts have raised the question of why we aren't doing just that. News outlets and the Internet-message-board-posting public have bought into the idea and, with millions of dollars potentially to be made from a whole new business model built around the concept, it could be only a matter of time before the folks at Honeywell/EMS Technologies start asking the same question.

EMS Aviation, the aerospace division of EMS Technologies, designs and manufactures a host of satellite-based broadband communication systems that enable worldwide high-speed Internet and voice and video capabilities aboard aircraft. Satcom boxes that say “Honeywell” on the side of them, in fact, are actually furnished by EMS Aviation. Based in Ottawa, this division serves a huge base of commercial and defense customers, delivering Inmarsat and Iridium satcom systems for tens of thousands of business airplanes and airliners, as well as for the U.S. Defense Department. In other words, they've got their hands full serving a massive customer base.

In his recent blog post, "Black Boxes Work Again," Flying editor-in-chief Robert Goyer argues that traditional black box technology still makes sense and says that calls for live transmission of data are misguided.

Still, the companies that sell satellite data services, for obvious reasons, like the live-transmission idea.

"The technology is available, people agree it works, every technical issue has been solved," Matthew Desch, the CEO of Iridium Communications, told ABC News recently. "An airplane should not go off the coast without anyone knowing where it is and what's wrong with it."

Iridium has joined with Canadian firm AeroMechanical Services to promote a system called AFIRS – Automated Flight Information Reporting System. Here’s how it would work: If an airliner over the ocean or other remote part of the world strays outside its normal flight envelope, or enters a dive, or loses cabin pressure, AFIRS would automatically send black box data by satellite to the airline or whoever else is authorized to receive it. The pilots, who might be busy dealing with the emergency, wouldn’t have to do a thing. The transmission would take just seconds.

Sounds pretty good. Especially for the people selling the technology to make it all work.

Again, Honeywell’s acquisition of EMS Technologies probably has nothing to do with the crash of an Air France airliner over the Atlantic Ocean on a dark and stormy night in 2009. But once engineers from Honeywell’s flight data recorders division start talking with their new colleagues from the suddenly massive Honeywell satcom division – and once their bosses see the potential impact on the bottom line such a pairing could bring – interesting things could happen.


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