The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Friday it was studying the possibility of live-streaming flight data recorders from airliners amid calls for such technology following the disappearance of a second airliner in five years.
Joe Kolly, director of research and engineering for the NTSB, declined to comment on the nearly three-week search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 less than an hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the airliner has rekindled discussions about in-flight streaming of black box data that could help locate missing aircraft and let authorities launch accident investigations sooner.
Kolly said discussions about live-streaming black box data from airliners began heating up after it took nearly two years to recover the flight data and voice recorders from an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Brazil to France in 2009.
He said NTSB officials, along with other national safety investigation bodies, groups like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), equipment manufacturers and airlines were looking at possible requirements for a system that could stream a limited amount of flight data.
"You're looking for what is the most important information," he said. "If the airline industry goes to that in the future, what would be those requirements?"
Kolly said governments were also increasingly interested in the possibility of streaming flight data to ensure security.
"We have our staff involved in technical meetings and discussions and working groups on just what type of data you would need ... what are the rates at which those data need to be transmitted," Kolly said. "And also ... what is going to trigger the data download."
Kolly said aviation authorities are always looking at new technologies to help improve safety.
Among companies developing such new technology is Canadian FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which builds a satellite- and Internet-based system used by 40 airlines, business jet operators and others to monitor aircraft systems, map flight paths, and provide voice, data and text services.
FLYHT's Automated Flight Information Reporting System can also stream black box data in emergencies, providing a possible model for the talks under way by aviation officials.
Kolly declined to comment on the FLYHT system. "There are technologies that can fill all sorts of gaps, and they are constantly being assessed," he said.
Richard Hayden, a company director with FLYHT, said there was growing interest in his company's technology, which grew out of a development project initiated by the Canadian government in 1998, largely because it can help airlines run their fleets more efficiently and save money on fuel.
He said the system had not caught on as well as expected given airlines' resistance to anything that increased costs. But he said it cost less than $100,000 to install a new system on an airplane, and a few dollars per flight hour to receive the data.
The system is in use on 350 aircraft today, including many that fly over remote areas such as Alaska, Canada, Africa, Afghanistan and Russia. FLYHT also recently won a deal to provide the system for a Chinese aircraft operator, Hayden said.
"This isn't expensive, and we don't have to build any infrastructure since we use the Iridim satellites," Hayden said, noting that FLYHT was also exploring opportunities to increase its work with military operators.
He said the company's system could not replace existing flight data or cockpit voice recorders since it was not built to survive a crash, but the system's ability to provide data in emergencies offered a big benefit for airlines.