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Airplane ‘Black Box’ Flight Recorder Technology, How it Works
March 13, 2014
Amanda Marie
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With the recent disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and all the speculation, conspiracy theories and criticism of the search efforts, it all comes down to finding the “Black Boxes” which will likely contain valuable insight as to exactly what happened to the airplane. The Associated Press has posted a detailed video which they describe as “an overview of electronic recording device technology used for analysis of airplane crashes or other unusual occurrences”. This video provides a good detailed explanation of the flight recorder technology and how the boxes are able to withstand crashes, fires, and send signals from depths well beneath the surface of water.

Flight recorder technology certainly isn’t new and its history goes back much further than some may realize. One of the earliest attempts to record flight data was made by François Hussenot and Paul Beaudouin in 1939 at the Marignane flight test center, France, with their "type HB" flight recorder. In 1947, Hussenot, Beaudouin and associate Marcel Ramolfo founded the Société Française d'Instruments de Mesure (SFIM) to market their design. The company eventually became a major supplier of data recorders, used not only aboard aircraft but also trains and other vehicles. SFIM is currently part of the Safran group which is a French multinational aircraft and rocket engine, aerospace component, and security company. SFIM still maintains a presence in the flight recorder market today.

The first prototype combined FDR/CVR boxes that were designed for use with civilian aircraft, and used to provide crucial information following airplane crashes, were produced in 1956 by David Warren of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, Australia.

Its unknown how flight recorders actually became known as “black boxes”. However, there are a few different theories, one being that the original prototype using film had to be produced in a dark room, and another coming from a journalist stating, “This is a wonderful black box.” There are also other speculations that it was the news media that began calling them “black boxes.”

The “flight recorder” was invented and patented in the United States by James J. Ryan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota from 1931 to 1963. The “coding apparatus” for flight recorders which maintain a continuous recording of aircraft flight data such as engine exhaust, temperature, fuel flow, aircraft velocity, altitude, control surfaces positions, rate of descent and other vital information was invented by James J. Ryan in 1959.

The two aviation recorders which are currently combined in a single assembly are the Flight Data Recorder and a Cockpit Sound Recorder, also known as a Cockpit Voice Recorder. The “Cockpit Sound Recorder” was invented in 1961 and patented in the United States by Edmund A. Boniface, Jr., an aeronautical engineer with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.

In the late 1960s, the introduction of the new wide body series of aircraft (B-747, DC-10, L-1011) created new problems for aviation accident investigators. Their concern was the potential for a high -density passenger accident, without enough sufficient information to properly identify the cause. By installing a Flight Data Acquisition Unit (FDAU), these analog aircraft could provide much more data. The new specification required a new digital type of recorder that would record 64 12-bit words each second for 25 hours. This represents approximate round-trip times between New York City and Japan, or between Los Angeles and Europe.

On July 19, 2005, the Safe Aviation and Flight Enhancement Act of 2005 was introduced and referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill required installation of a second cockpit voice recorder, digital flight data recorder system and emergency locator transmitter that would utilize combination deployable recorder technology in each commercial passenger aircraft that is currently required to carry each of those recorders.

There have been three types of flight recorders, first generation foil recorders, second generation tape recorders, and third generation solid state recorders. When we think of technology as it is now, we often forget, or are unaware of, a large part of the history that led to certain types of devices that are being used today. When it comes to flight recorders, it all began in 1939, 75 years ago.

Resources and additional details: L3 Aviation Recorders and Wikipedia.

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