Is it time Blackbox recorders were replaced?

For the families of passengers, it has proved to be an incredibly frustrating ordeal, with a lack of answers resulting in loved ones unable to find closure and grieve properlyWithout the safe recovery of the planes blackbox, everything is left to speculation and conspiracy theories, which can be particularly damaging to the families, the reputation of the pilots and the credibility of the airline.

Of course, after 30 days, the beacons distress signal stops and the task of recovering this important device becomes a much more difficult proposition. With deep, rough and unforgiving oceans, the process of investigating a wreckage area for ships is challenging to say the least, with the range of signal of the blackbox limited to three to five thousand metres. So is there a way round it? Yes. Although it’s far from straightforward, which is party why it’s taken almost 10 years since calls for improvements were made in the wake of AF447, to finally reach something that resembles a solution.

From January 2018, underwater locator signals will last for an extra 60 days, although whether or not that answers the problem is up for debate, when considering the 2 years it took to find Air France flight 447. Perhaps more significant is the extra underwater locator beacon that would transmit a different frequency, making it more easily identified by military equipment, rather than needing to have specialised equipment on scene. This means the signal could be picked up much more quickly. This requirement will be phased in from January 2019.

So why has it taken so long? Aviation is notoriously cautious towards significant changes and conservative about taking any unnecessary risks. Not only could any structural changes possibly affect the avionics of the aircrafts, but rolling the changes out across thousands of aircrafts, which are heavily relied upon to carry out numerous journeys every week, is a delicate issue for many airliners, who are reluctant to ground their fleet of planes around the world at once to have new technology installed overnight.

But is that enough? Quite possibly not. They will certainly help, but they definitely won’t overcome the problem altogether. Which is why Airbus have taken the initiative to go one step further, fitting some of its planes with deployable flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Such devices would be designed to float on water and would be ejected from the plane in case of severe distress. Not only would it be easier to find but the algorithm could also initiate transmission of basic flight recorder data such as location, altitude or air-speed between the moment when the problems are detected and the actual impact.

Whilst this would alleviate the problem to a large extent, the ultimate goal is still to have a continuous streaming of flight recorder data throughout the flight. The question is, how many more plane disasters will happen before this becomes a must-have, rather than just wishful thinking.