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Malaysia Air Flight 370 Would Not Have Disappeared if We'd Had This System

"Glass Box," the real-time transmission of all relevent flight data, would have given investigators far more to go on

2 min read
Malaysia Air Flight 370 Would Not Have Disappeared if We'd Had This System

A real-time flight-data recording method could have given investigators a far better idea of what has happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, says Krishma Kavi, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of North Texas, in Denton.

Kavi described such a system in detail iIEEE Spectrum in 2010, calling it the glass box, in contrast to the black box, which records flight data and voice data. The black box can be replayed only after the fact, and then only if it can be salvaged from an airliner's wreckage; the proposed glass box would immediately transmit the data to the cloud—the network of servers that increasingly blankets the earth.

"I strongly believe that our version of the black box (glass box) would have provided information indicating that all components of the plane were operating" in the wayward MH 370,  he said in an email yesterday. "It would have provided data on speed, altitude, direction of the flight... in real time."

In his article for Spectrum, Kavi wrote that "the airplane would transmit directly to the ground where possible, but when flying high or over water, it would have to resort to transmission via networks of satellites, some high up in geosynchronous orbit, others much lower down." Satellite relays would be relatively slow, but still they could include all relevant flight data, at least in compressed form.

MH370 seems to have been over water for most of the time since it strayed from its official flight path to Beijing. 

Kavi says that the glass-box system could even include a "panic button." In the event of a hijacking, the pilot would push the button, transferring control of the plane to the automated flight system, which would then land it at the nearest airport.  Of course, that trick couldn't  stop the pilot himself from stealing away an airliner, a possibility entertained by some investigators of Flight 370.

Kavi retorts that, even in this situation, his glass box could still be designed so that nobody on board the airliner to turn it off. That's how today's black boxes work, he notes.

"I get so frustrated that we still are talking about real-time transmission of flight data when the technology is here," Kavi says, adding that  "silver lining" of the story is that the aviation world is moving slowly toward his ideal. What little the investigators have gleaned of the wayward Flight 370 has come largely from ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Reporting System), which allows for periodic satellite "health updates." These provided the only evidence the airliner continued to fly for hours after its last official contact—evidence too scanty, however, to reconstruct the flight path.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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