Authorities last week continued their race against time to recover the flight recorders from Egypt Air Flight 804 before the batteries die on the devices' homing beacons.

But the time-consuming and costly search for the black boxes of the Airbus 320 that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19 has raised questions about whether more should be done to transmit flight data in real time.

"What we should care about is autonomous, uninterruptable, real-time tracking of aircraft position," aviation analyst Bob Mann said.

Tracking aircraft on a second-by-second basis as they fly over the ocean would enable search-and-rescue teams to pinpoint the location of a downed plane to within a tiny one-tenth of a square mile area, Mann said.

At present, two leading trade organizations, IATA and Airlines for America have set a goal that member airlines report their positions at least every 15 minutes, no matter where they are in the world. But with jetliners cruising at approximately 500 mph, a 15-minute reporting interval can leave a search area as large as 70,000 square miles, according to Mann.

Moreover, the technology required for real-time tracking and reporting already exists, though no major carrier has yet installed it.

Two Canadian companies say they have developed technologies that can go a long way toward augmenting black boxes. And aside from that, they claim that their devices can improve aircraft operating efficiency and reduce maintenance costs.

"There aren't very many operators that will buy our system just to invest in safety," said Tom Schmutz, CEO of Calgary, Alberta-based Flyht Aerospace Solutions. "But not only can they save money; in the event there is a problem, they have this data they wouldn't otherwise have."

The data box at the core of the Star Navigations system. It would track the aircraft and monitor its parameters.
The data box at the core of the Star Navigations system. It would track the aircraft and monitor its parameters.

Flyht and Toronto-based Star Navigation Systems are separately marketing solutions that monitor flight operations and have the ability to stream them to the ground in real time. Viraf Kapadia, CEO of Star Navigation, said that his company's system is operated by means of a small onboard computer that taps into the existing data flow on an aircraft.

The Star system continuously tracks the aircraft and monitors various parameters, including, for example, engine temperature and the angle of attack. Customers such as commercial airlines can track the status of their craft in real time and can set threshold levels for setting off an alert.

When a threshold is met, an alert is immediately beamed via satellite to the ground, where the airline can access it.

Warnings can also trigger real-time reporting of common flight data, including mechanical information and position tracking. Kapadia said that in an emergency, his computer is capable of transmitting such data every second, though airlines may choose to transmit it less often in order to save expense.

"There is a money cost, as well as a moral cost," Kapadia said. "And I don't know why the international agencies don't come out and say, 'Tracking every 10 and 15 seconds with airlines.'"

He said that the Star Navigation system sends a report to the airline after every flight. The reports shed light on the craft's operations, helping the customer save fuel and pinpoint the best time to undertake maintenance. That would more than recover the approximately $105,000 per plane that the onboard computer would cost to purchase and operate over the first year, Kapadia said.

Star Navigation has yet to sell a unit to a commercial airline, though the system has been tested by airlines in Canada and Asia.

Flyht, on the other hand, is already doing business with 50 airlines, Schmutz said, though none is a major player in the industry. He cited Air Niugini in New Guinea and the U.S. charter operator Omni as examples of his customer base.

Like Star Navigation, the Flyht system monitors the operations of an aircraft and sends an alert when an operating threshold is exceeded. At that point, real-time data streaming can be triggered.

"Our objective is not to replace the black box," Schmutz said. "It holds hours and hours of information. We're trying to augment the black box."

The Flyht system costs less than $100,000 per plane installed, he said.

Though systems such as Star Navigation and Flyht offer options to airlines, Mann says the best way to make sure jetliners like Malaysia Air Flight 370, which famously disappeared over the South China Sea in 2014, never get lost again is to require real-time reporting each second. That reporting should be uninterruptable and autonomous, he said, meaning that it happens without the need for any action from an aircraft or airline and can't be switched off.

An autonomous tracking regime will more or less be in place over ground in the U.S. in 2020, when aircraft will be required to be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems, which will enable air traffic controllers to track planes with the satellite-based NextGen system that the FAA currently has under development.

Mann said autonomous reporting should be instituted globally. By continuously collecting data on a flight's location and heading, but not other bandwidth-consuming information such as cockpit recordings and engine monitoring, he said, such a system could be both functional and affordable.

"This could be done now, but isn't," Mann said.

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