Why don’t we have streaming data from the missing B777?

The great minds of the New York Times are wondering (editorial) why we don’t have streaming data from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. (As previously noted here, none of the great minds of the New York Times have a technical background.) How much could it possibly cost to send back data at intervals?

It turns out that the retail cost of circuitry that will do the job is about $1000 (in the boutique quantities that the aviation industry buys; probably closer to $10 if added to every Honda Accord). I wrote about this a bit in my Heli-Expo notes:

Spidertracks is interesting because an FAA-approved GPS costs $5-15,000 and an FAA-approved Iridium phone installation is about $30,000. The Spidertracks box includes one of each for $1000 plus $1.90 per flight hour for Iridium fees to send back position reports.

For retrofitting a certified airliner the numbers above should probably be more like $500,000. I.e., the government regulations that the New York Times is fond of advocating add a factor of perhaps 500X to the cost of doing what they now want.

This is sort of the same situation as for the Asiana 777 that crashed in San Francisco. Recall that the ground-based instrument landing system radio beacons were inoperative that day so the four pilots decided to fly a visual approach, with the same results as five U.S. Air Force officers (three pilots; two flight engineers) flying a similarly sized C5 cargo plane back in 2006 (story). Equipment that enables a GPS-based precision autopilot approach costs about $500 in an experimental airplane (minimal regulation), about $10,000 in a crummy four-seater (onerous regulation), and perhaps $1 million  in a Boeing 777 (crazy intense regulation). Because airlines don’t want to pay a 2000X markup for regulation they generally fly with whatever avionics came with the airplane.

[This is not to say that I am advocating deregulating or privatizing aircraft and avionics certification. Only pointing out that we have as a society made a choice that we would rather stick with risks that we understand, e.g., 20-50-year-old technology in airliners, than suffer from the risks of innovation, e.g., letting passengers use Kindles and iPads.]

8 Comments

  1. jerry

    March 10, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

    1

    Apparently Rolls Royce can monitor certain engines in real time: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/8111075/Live-monitoring-helps-engine-manufacturers-track-performance.html

    I do wonder why the incredibly durable and survivable black box isn’t replicated in real time to half a dozen sd cards mounted on the perimeter of the aircraft in places known to survive and/or breakaway and float. (each wing tip and the tip of the tail contains a raspberry pi encased in foam writing to its sd card communicating with black box via wifi)

  2. rjh

    March 10, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    2

    The B777 has ACARS as part of the flight data management system. It does occasionally update home base. Unlike the Air France 447 crash over the Atlantic, it appears that no relevant messages were sent. This does eliminate some possibilities about what happened.

  3. Joshua Levinson

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    3

    One question I haven’t seen an answer to, likely because of non-technical reporters not knowing the questions to ask, is whether the plane was under primary radar coverage at the time of the accident. So far, all of the news reports have said something to the effect of, “The plane disappeared off of radar screens.” If it disappeared from primary radar, the only seemingly possible explanation is an incredibly violent in-flight breakup. Even the engines would have had to have come apart, as I assume they alone would be big enough to give a primary radar return. Secondary coverage only means that a loss of all electrics, and associated loss of transponder return, could mean that the plane glided or traveled far from the location where the radar return was lost.

  4. Martin Alderson

    March 11, 2014 @ 12:41 am

    4

    Philip,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for many years, but it seems to me that you are confusing two things here:

    1) The cost of regulation [which I agree, is hideous]
    2) The cost of retrofitting anything [which is hideous - much like relaying fiber to a customer when you have coaxial cable]

    The logic of your post here would suggest that the easiest suggestion would be to mandate this. There could be a grandfather rule in place for existing aircraft, if indeed it did cost the $1million to retrofit.

    But if the FAA mandated this rule then all new airliners would have this equipment. You admitted yourself “regulation they generally fly with whatever avionics came with the airplane”. If these avionics were mandated to come with the airplane, then this would be a non-issue in ~20 years. That’s the only way to make progress.

    Arguably, this is what the FAA and the like should be doing – mandating standards for new equipment. Any sort of retrofit costs a fortune regardless of the industry.

  5. Martin Alderson

    March 11, 2014 @ 12:45 am

    5

    @Jerry

    “I do wonder why the incredibly durable and survivable black box isn’t replicated in real time to half a dozen sd cards mounted on the perimeter of the aircraft in places known to survive and/or breakaway and float. (each wing tip and the tip of the tail contains a raspberry pi encased in foam writing to its sd card communicating with black box via wifi)”

    This is pointless. Air transport is ridiculously safe. We only hear of it, like train crashes, because they make great media stories.

    The money spent would be far better spent on drink driving campaigns or the like. I agree that the avionics are well behind the time, but to suggest that every airliner would need 20 backups of the black box is pushing it.

    The average car does not have a black box. That would likely be far more useful to society, to know how people drive cars and how they crash.

  6. jerry

    March 11, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    6

    Why did the plane crash killing 300 is often more salient then why did the SUV crash killing 5. And the plane representing $100 million dollars and 300 lives adds to that.

    My point is that design decisions made about black boxes 30 years ago, before easy networking, before wifi, before sd cards, before Raspberry Pis and very cheap computing were based on completely different assumptions. The black box had to survive. They paint them orange and make them ping on the radio, but they are still sometimes notoriously difficult to find and are damaged.

    A replicated black box may not have helped MH370, but I’ve certainly seen press photos of broken off tail sections, or other debris from aircraft floating on the water.

    Short of guaranteed 24×7 uplinks, it would seem a small cost (and low weight) to at the least, replicate the black box to several locations in the plane.

    Martin, you shouldn’t keep all your backups onsite.

    Finally, cars already are being given black boxes and are getting “better” ones, regardless, the fallacy of the excluded middle is calling your name.

  7. Mike

    March 11, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

    7

    This is totally a nit, but the claim that “Equipment that enables a GPS-based precision autopilot approach costs about $500 in an experimental airplane (minimal regulation)” isn’t quite accurate. The FAA really cares that things that help you get around “in the system” are the TSO’d flavor, even in homebuilts. So that means IFR GPSs and transponders, basically. The latter is tied to parts of part 91, while the GPS one isn’t in law, but the AIM (which is a flavor of policy/guidance/FAA opinion) clearly states the cert requirement for GPS) Now, you can find 430Ws for between 5-10K, and 400Ws for well less than that. The rest of the panel can be completely uncertified, incidentally. Homebuilts, unless the owner goes for operating limitations that allow for IFR, don’t even need to comply with 91.205, technically (as 91.205 only nominally applies to standard and other conventional category aircraft, per its own header). If you request IFR op limits, then something along the lines of “”day VFR unless equipped per 91.205″ ends up in them.

  8. foobarqux

    March 16, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

    8

    I don’t think the fixed cost should be as high as you suggest because the functionality would (arguably) not be safety-critical, in contrast to your examples, and therefore subject to weaker regulations.

    It doesn’t affect flight safety, only rescue operations. What happens if the new GPS location functionality fails? The only deleterious consequence is if the other locations systems fail (ELT) and the error causes, in the event that saving passengers is possible, for SAR to look in the wrong place when they otherwise would have looked in the correct one.

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