Why the Black Box on Airplanes Needs to Go Away

Malaysian acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, center, shows maps of South Corridor and North Corridor of the search and rescue as director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, right, and Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamzah Zainudin during a press conference at a hotel next to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Sepang, Malaysia, Monday, March 17, 2014. The search for the missing Malaysian jet pushed deep into the northern and southern hemispheres Monday as Australia took the lead in scouring the seas of the southern Indian Ocean and Kazakhstan - about 10,000 miles to the northwest - answered Malaysia's call for help in the unprecedented hunt. Vincent Thian/AP

In another 10 years, the very idea of a "black box" flight data recorder on an airliner will seem as naive and outdated as a smoking section.

The world is entering a new hyper-connected era, when nearly every physical thing will be connected to networks, each constantly yammering about what it's doing or sensing, sending valuable data through the cloud to computers that can instantly analyze the information, look for patterns and help us understand our world better.

Today's airliners are so out of sync with this era, they might as well be a guy with a mullet. A modern plane like the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is jacked full of computers and sensors spinning out enormous amounts of data, and yet the plane is connected to nothing. While it's up in the real clouds, the plane's systems have no contact with the technology cloud. It is as ridiculous as buying the whiz-bangiest laptop on the market and never connecting it to the Internet.

The black box on every airliner records data from up to 1,000 different parameters for 25 hours—and then erases it. Data is becoming the most valuable resource on the planet, yet airline companies are dumping it, thinking the data is useful only if a plane crashes—which is like believing that medical data about a patient is useful only as a way to later figure out why the person died.

Of course, black boxes have been in the news because of the Malaysia Airlines crash. Since airliners aren't connected, all the data about that crash is sealed in a box that, as of this writing, hasn't been located. The same happened when an Air France flight dropped into the ocean in 2009, and the box wasn't found for two years.

Ever since, technologists have advocated streaming the black box data back to ground computers through constant connections with satellites or towers on land. The concept has gone nowhere. Airline executives and government agencies have said it's too expensive to outfit the world's 20,000 commercial aircraft with the technology and pay for all that communication bandwidth, when crashes are rare and a lost box is rarer still.

But that's a myopic view. Connected airliners and the data from them would prevent more mechanical failures or pilot errors or terrorist attacks from happening in the first place. The information would also help airlines save money on fuel and maintenance and find efficiencies they can't yet even imagine.

For a little perspective, consider the frenzy going on right now in Silicon Valley, New York, Tel Aviv and every other corridor of innovation. Entrepreneurs are running around, looking at everything that exists and asking, What if that had some digital smarts and was connected? How would that change what that thing can do and the value it can create?

A home's front-door lock hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. Now Lockitron is making a connected lock that can be unlocked from anywhere with a smartphone. It collects data on when people enter or leave, which could be useful in finding out if your high school daughter is bringing her boyfriend to the house when she should be in class. Nest added connectivity and data to the thermostat and sold the company to Google for $3 billion. Nike is making connected shoes. Whistle is bringing us connected dogs.

All of these devices put a wireless connector and some smarts in the hardware, so the thing can do a little data processing locally, then send information out to a data center, where bigger computers can analyze it, massage it and make it do something useful—the way Nest helps figure out ways to more efficiently heat your home.

This is the way of the hyper-connected era, whether in a lock or something much more complex, like an airliner. A few years ago, jet engine maker General Electric bought a company called SmartSignal, which developed software that can watch data coming from sensors in a jet engine and learn the patterns of that particular engine. Then, as the data streams by, the software can tell if there's any kind of anomaly and will know beforehand if a part is about to break.

Today, that all happens inside the airborne plane, and the system sends up a warning only when something looks wrong. On a connected plane, the software could act like a Nest for engines, sending appropriate data back to bigger computers that could compare engine data from all the airline's planes and look for ways to operate more safely with less downtime.

Imagine if, on 9/11, the engines had been able to talk to the ground and say they've been revved in a way that suggests they're being driven by an amateur. Might that have changed some outcomes?

More magic happens when data from different systems on a plane streams to ground computers that can look at it all in context. "One example is in the Malaysian case," says Krishna Kavi, a computer science professor at the University of North Texas, who has pitched the U.S. airline industry on streaming data since 2000. "The data from engines might be saying things are OK, but the data shows there's no communication from the pilot." Noticing such an anomaly in the usual pattern, the system could alert officials.

With connected planes, technologists say, a pilot on the ground might even be able to take control of a distressed or hijacked plane and land it, like flying a drone.

Would it cost a lot to deploy such technology? Yep! But at some point—now or soon—the technology gets good enough and cheap enough to pay for itself in saved time, money and maybe lives. "The data might find design faults or weather patterns, or could be used to help train pilots," Kavi says. "Unless you have the data, you can't find those efficiencies."

The airlines have known the power of data for a long time. In the mid-1980s, People Express whooshed onto the scene as the first discount airline and stole customers from the major airlines. Robert Crandall, then the chief executive officer of American Airlines, invested in nascent technology called yield management—software that analyzes historical data about ticket prices and can make predictions about how to fill planes. This gave birth to the now-familiar way tickets get sold—low fares if you buy weeks in advance; high fares if you buy soon before a flight and come back the next day.

The data helped American compete on price with People Express on key routes, yet still make a profit despite American's higher cost structure. American stole just enough customers back from People Express to kill the upstart. Data wins, every time.

So there's no question the airline industry will eventually embrace the connected plane and the data treasure that comes with it, and the black box will go the way of the Airfone.