Joshua Knopp // Senior Staff Writer
For the last 13 years Krishna Kavi has been advocating a technology that would have helped prevent airplane disasters, including the Malaysia Flight 370. With the plane vanishing from radars into the unknown, the UNT professor thinks his invention could have provided some much-needed help.
At this point, officials are unsure of the exact details of what happened to the plane. Officials know the plane took a sharp turn southwest away from its course and back toward Malaysia and currently believe it crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
After airline incidents, air officials typically consult the “black box” flight data recorder planes carry onboard to see what went wrong. But first, they have to find it.
In contrast to this process, UNT computer science and engineering professor Kavi has been advocating a “glass box” concept that would stream vital flight information to air traffic controllers. Having this information during the flight may have helped officials know the details of the flight.Kavi and then-graduate student Mohammed Aborizka began researching the idea in 2000 after EgyptAir 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Kavi and Aborizka were operating on the assumption that crashes caused by pilot error were mostly due to not having information quickly enough to prevent a crash.
They proposed designing a data recorder that would continually transmit information to a coordinator on the ground. The coordinator would have access to a base of knowledge about what was likely going on and how the pilot should adjust to a given problem. Kavi was with the University of Alabama at Huntsville at the time.
“We said, if we have the technology, why not continuously stream data to the ground?” Kavi said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it would cost about $300 million per day in data transmission and did not pursue development.
At the time, cell phone technology was still developing, but has since developed. Now data transmission costs could rely more on cell towers, which are less expensive to use than satellites, making the idea more feasible.
Kavi said, even at the time, it would cost less than the FAA estimated price because planes are only in the air for a few hours each, plus domestic flights would cost less to track.
FAA media representative Les Dorr said the administration still believes a glass box concept is technically unfeasible on a large scale because of bandwidth and ground storage concerns.
Because airplanes still crash, and due to the cost of a glass box constantly declining, the idea tends to resurface and gain steam every time a situation it might be able to prevent goes wrong.
The Malaysia Airlines incident is another example, with Kavi quoted in several newspapers including “Dallas Morning News” and “Newsweek” and “The New York Times” since the incident.
Around the same time Kavi was researching the idea, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions was developing a prototype that has become its best-selling product.
FLYHT president Matt Bradley said his company’s “Afirs” unit is a passive device that, instead of streaming continuously, waits for an abnormal event.
It then begins transmitting relevant data to the ground. The Afirs costs about $100,000 per plane with installation. Bradley said the company has 400 Afirs units around the world.
While streaming information has gotten cheaper, Kavi and Bradley agreed that money would be a barrier to seeing Afirs or a glass box concept implemented widely.
“You don’t make money by being safe,” Bradley said. “Nobody puts it on specifically for live black box capability. They put it on because it makes them money. Anyone who puts on an Afirs unit expects to see their investment returned in the next six months.”
Bradley said the Afirs unit would also help save airlines money by tracking how the plane is piloted, which help airlines make sure replaceable parts are preserved as much as possible.
Kavi said widespread use of Afirs or a glass box device won’t happen until they are required because cost will remain a factor.
“Unless there’s a regulation requiring this, you won’t see it implemented,” Kavi said. “You don’t really know what the value of a glass box is until you see one implemented.”
Feature photo: Missing flight Malaysia 370 vanished from the air on March 8. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Common