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 in IEEE 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.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.