"Of the three recent disasters, none would have changed" with real-time black boxes, says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. "You're just talking about faster closure."
Instead of real-time data tracking, it makes more sense to have the capability to stream all that data in real-time and use it only when something's amiss. If an anomaly—cabin depressurization, say, or an engine malfunction—occurs, air traffic control, carriers and the aircraft manufacturer could begin streaming data from that specific aircraft. This is something that existing communications technology could easily support, were such a system developed, would it would provide much more information to investigators during and immediately after an in-flight incident.
"That capability is currently under development," says Mary I. McMillan, vice president for aviation safety and operational services with satellite communications provider Inmarsat.
As with many things in commercial aviation, the technology is not the biggest hurdle. What data to stream, when to stream it, and how to stream it would be debated among the many constituents involved—airlines, pilots, governmental regulators and the like. Everyone from pilots unions, the International Civil Aviation Organization, national regulatory agencies like the FAA as well as carriers would all need to sign off, and we'd need spectrum dedicated to the communication system. There was years of debate over the privacy implications of cockpit voice recorders before they were adopted, and any discussion of real-time data monitoring would undoubtedly fuel similar debate and discussion.
"There's a lot of sensitivity around information like that," McMillan says. "I wouldn't pretend that it's easy to mandate black box in the cloud."
All that aside, even if the technology to stream flight data recorder data in real-time were developed, there's no guarantee carriers would adopt it without a regulatory mandate. Various regulatory agencies have what's called a Minimum Equipment List, or MEL. According to McMillan, some planes may legally operate without on-board weather radar, for example. Some planes might not even be GPS-equipped, especially if they're flying over land where getting lost is unlikely. Given the rarity of plane crashes, and the fact the black box data recorders are almost invariably recovered, it is unlikely that streaming black box technology would be implemented on a wide scale anytime soon.
"This is nothing new. Every time something bad happens, people come up with an untenable idea for a technological fix or an equipment fix," says Aboulafia. "These are three tragic anecdotes, but the plural of anecdote is not data."