What happens in the sky might be solved in the cloud.


At this point, nearly two weeks after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the only certainty is the source of the next conspiracy theory.  We’ve heard every theory from hijacking to pilot suicide to computer hacking terrorism.  There’s no plane.  There’s no physical evidence.  There’s no group claiming responsibility.  And the worst part – there’s no concrete data to tell us where that plane was, where it was heading, or what might have gone wrong.  Some of the best thinking, not unsurprisingly, is being forwarded on WIRED.com.

Why is that?

It turns out that, as astounding an engineering feat it may be to get 30 tons of aluminum aloft and cruising at 500 mph, there really is not that much new “technology” in aviation.  Sure, there are on-board computers, there are advanced avionics systems, there’s radar and so on.  But in terms of how planes are tracked, the systems are still pretty crude.

In the United States, for instance, there can be upwards of 50,000 aircraft flying through the skies on any given day.  These are tracked through the air route traffic control centers (ARTCC) using basic radio frequencies.  A plane flying from New York to Los Angeles, for instance, is simply “handed off” from one ARTCC to the next, until it’s close enough to talk to the air traffic control tower (ATCT) at Los Angeles.  Along the way, they’re instructed on basic parameters:  what altitude to fly at, what heading to take and so on.  And flights heading across oceans don’t even have real-time contact:  they’re given a heading, an altitude, and they simply “check in” via high frequency radio with control centers that can be sometimes thousands of miles away.

When a plane crashes (a rare occurrence, in terms of probability,) or disappears (even less likely,) the investigation usually focuses on finding the “black box.”  The black box houses a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder.  These record all kinds of information about the flight, including the mechanical data, and the conversations between the cockpit and the towers.

Why not modernize the flight data recording and cockpit voice recordings into a more technologically advanced system?  For instance, why doesn’t every commercial flight have a real-time data stream to the cloud?  From the time a plane is at the gate, through takeoff and climb, flight routing, approach and landing, EVERYTHING can be uploaded in real-time to the cloud.

This would be big data indeed.  On the receiving end, interested parties (from the airplane manufacturers to airline system executives to airports,) can monitor that data for all kinds of information BEFORE anything happens.  Think of the advances that might be realized:

  • A real-time data stream can tell the pilots and the airline about on-the-ground conditions, such as tire pressures, tire wear (heck even your basic automobile can do that,) hydraulics systems, power systems, computer systems and more.
  • In-flight data streams can inform on other conditions like rate of burn on fuel, weather-related data (triangulated with the aircraft’s current heading and velocity,) best altitudes for certain legs, engine efficiency and diagnostics and even act as the precursor to ATC at arriving airports for more streamlined trafficking.  Every interested party could tap into segments of the data set for relevant and actionable information.
  • Imagine – if the real-time data recording detects any glitch whatsoever, the awaiting airport can have the appropriate crews ready to remedy the problem and get the plane back in the air sooner than later.  That’s good for the airline, and for impatient passengers.
  • With big data providing in-air information, manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus can have access to a wealth of information about their aircraft, providing a post-sale, ongoing flight test to make longer-term observations and in turn, inform their engineering teams with an up-to-the-moment feedback loop.
  • With big data, we could probably streamline airport efficiency as well. (Yay!)

But mostly, the benefits of big data center around safety.  Big data is, at worst, informative.  And at best, it’s predictive.  If we could predict when issues might arise (even at the probability level,) we could keep pilots, crews and passengers safe, and probably avert any more, um, disappearing aircraft.

But why isn’t this done on a global scale?  There are drawbacks to such a proposal, to be sure.

  • Any system that can be built is eventually at the risk of being hacked.  Duly noted.  So we build in the world’s most sophisticated security (like every government/defense/space program has,) and find ways to packet, encrypt and protect.
  • There’s the sheer heft.  We’re talking storage in the yottabytes and a data center the size of Topeka.
  • This most likely hasn’t been done because it would be prohibitively expensive.  To the tune of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to craft, build, deploy and maintain a data system of this magnitude.  And then there’s the storage/archiving issue.

But think about it:  that cost could be amortized by every airline, manufacturer and aviation association in the world, and if it carries with it the promise of improved safety, greater efficiency, and predictive analytics, who wouldn’t be in favor of that?

We have entered the age of the Internet of Things.  Our homes are warmed by “smart” thermostats that are remotely controllable.  We have “smart” TVs and “smart” dishwashers and “smart” refrigerators to enhance our entertainment choices and the temperature of our water. So why not a smarter aviation infrastructure?

But who could build such a vast and predictive data center?  I don’t know for sure, but it might rhyme with Froogle.