Can planes be made disappearance-proof?

The year that went by was particularly bad for the aviation industry with a plane disappearing in March, never to be found again and another going off the radar at the year-end, only to be discovered later as having crashed.

However, do we have technology to make an aircraft “disappearance-proof”? A Canadian airline seems to have found a way to do so, according to a report Thursday.

Canadian airline First Air, which flies across some of the most remote and sparsely populated areas in North America, with routes going as far as the Resolute Bay in the Arctic Circle, often finds its planes going beyond the reach of conventional radars. However, First Air planes are also nearly disappearance-proof, The Independent reported Thursday.

This is done with the help of a six-pound tracking system, about the size of a hotel safe, installed in the planes’ electronics bay.

Image Credit: FLYHT
Image Credit: FLYHT
When flights proceed normally, the system does not snap into action. But if something goes wrong, for instance, a sudden loss of altitude, or engine vibrations, the system begins transmitting data to the ground via satellites every second, the report said, adding that the box spits out reams of performance data as well as the basics necessary for a search-and-rescue mission: coordinates, speed, and altitude.

First Air is an exception in this regard, as most commercial airlines when in distress, have no comparable safeguards and as seen in the case of AirAsia flight QZ8501, they can crash into the sea without relaying any information about their final moments of flight.

With the technology that is available, aeroplanes are surprisingly non-communicative. They have transponders that broadcast location, but only those that work in tandem with radars.

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About three-quarters of the world’s airlines also use an additional data system, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that reports data back to the ground at pre-determined intervals. But in the case of an ocean crash, that information can leave one with a search field the size of the US state of Texas and plenty of guesswork.

Of all aeroplane technology, though, black boxes are the most anachronistic. The boxes contain all the key flight data, but they don’t share it. Therefore, when a plane goes down, search teams may end up spending months or years scouring the ocean floor before they can figure out what went wrong.

The black boxes also record cockpit conversation, but overwrite the audio every two hours.

“This seems wholly inadequate,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak wrote earlier this year in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

“Given that a standard iPhone can record 24 hours of audio, surely the black box should have sufficient memory to record cockpit conversation for the full duration of any flight,” he said.

So why do not airlines opt for a better system? Cost is the first explanation. The system being used by First Air, designed by Calgary-based FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, transmits data only during unexpected scenarios as a way to keep costs from spiralling out of control.

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