December 26, 2016 | Christine Negroni Contributor |
The terrified passengers on Emirates Flight 521 may have still been running across the runway after the Boeing 777 crash landed, while unseen critical information about what went wrong was already being sent to the airline.
A tiny transmitting device, small enough to fit in a hand, used a mobile data network to download off the plane all the information from the flight data recorder and then some, in a process that surely demonstrates the next new thing in air safety.
Nine minutes after the aircraft came to rest, all data was in the hand of the airline,” said Raul Segredo, president of Avionica, the company that provides the equipment to Emirates. Getting information off the plane and into the possession of airlines and air safety entities is aviation’s holy grail, a technological advancement that ascended to top priority after the silent and mysterious disappearance of Malaysia 370 in March 2014.
Most airliners communicate small bits of information via satellite when flying over vast oceans, deserts or uninhabited areas. But detailed data collected on Quick Access Recorders remains on the airplane until landing and then it downloads using cellular networks.
“The next logical step is to marry data with satellite communication equipment so we can transmit when the plane is in flight,” Segredo said. Avionica works with the satellite company Iridium for this kind of service.
That coupling may have seemed like the longest engagement in the world, considering that discussion of in-flight transmission of flight details started in earnest after Air France Flight 447 crashed in June 2009. But now, seven years later, a future that includes jettisoning black box information to the ground seems much closer.
Air safety authorities in the United Arab Emirates told reporters eager to know what happened, that they are waiting to recover the black boxes. If the airline has had access to the QAR data since August 3, folks in the Emirates should be pretty far along in their understanding of what happened on the plane, if not necessarily why.
The Avionica Quick Access Recorder is just 3 inches At 6.5 ounces and just over three by two inches (objects in the photo may appear larger) Avionica’s quick access recorder is used by airlines and in business aviation by operators seeking to understand when and why flights might operate outside of normal parameters.
Several years ago, Japan Airlines went so far as to explain the program to its passengers in an in flight video, as I reported on for The New York Times at the time.
So while the QAR’s raison d’etre is to diagnose potential problems before they become accidents, the Emirates example points clearly to what Segredo calls ”a much bigger value proposition,” and I have to agree.
Amidst the drama and the smoke and the flames a dying plane sent a vital message with its last breath. Compare that to the total absence of information from MH-370 and there’s reason to be optimistic about a not-too-distant future in which that can no longer happen.