NTSB to Hold Forum on Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology

By Joseph Kolly, PhD

Every day, NTSB investigators rely on information from flight recorders, also known as “black boxes,” to help determine accident causes and make recommendations to prevent recurrences.

That information guides on-scene work, so providing it to our investigative team as soon as possible is a high priority. The information continues to play a vital role throughout the entire accident investigation process.

Investigator Erin Gormley prepares to access data from flight recorders in the NTSB’s lab.
Investigator Erin Gormley prepares to access data from flight recorders in the NTSB’s lab.

When a recorder is recovered from an accident site, it is up to my team in the Office of Research and Engineering to extract its data. My engineers in the Vehicle Recorder Laboratory do outstanding work. They have been able to obtain valid information from mangled, burned, and water-damaged flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR) time and again.

Rapid recovery of these recorders and access to the vital information they contain are among our highest priorities. But no laboratory can provide this critical data unless the recorders are found. Recently, there have been a few exhaustive, expensive, and well‑publicized searches for missing aircraft and their recorders. Such events have raised serious concerns within NTSB and in other safety organizations.

Currently, airliners are equipped with FDRs and CVRs that are crash‑hardened to survive fire and impact damage. These recorders are also fitted with beacons to help locate them when under water; they have a good track record in providing investigators timely and accurate information. However, there are technologies currently available and under development that may offer improvements in these areas.

In recent years, significant advances have been made in recorder design, underwater and emergency locator beacon technology, and wireless flight data transmission technology. These innovations can be packaged and integrated in many ways. But to have confidence in the benefits of any products or technologies, we need to fully understand how they work, what they offer, and how current standards and regulations impact their implementation.

To envision the best solutions for the future, we have to first thoroughly examine all the options. That is why the NTSB is holding a one-day forum, Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology, on October 7, 2014, in Washington. Details about the forum will be released in early September.

We will invite industry experts to the forum to discuss the technologies available. US federal and international regulators will address how these technologies could be implemented. We will invite aircraft and device manufacturers to discuss their vision for these improvements and how they will incorporate them in current and future aircraft. Further, we will facilitate discussion about data protection and use. The goal is to help the aviation community consider new ways to locate, access, and enhance flight data and decrease the time and expense involved in doing so.

It is time to take a fresh look at where we are and where we need to be. NTSB’s Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology forum will do just that. I hope you can join us in person or via live webcast for this important event.

Dr. Kolly is the Director of NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering

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