Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Saturday, June 6, 2009

“Cloud” computing?

There’s a lot of talk about cloud computing, which is the notion that your files might live and be processed somewhere out on the Internet rather than on your own PC or laptop. It has some advantages – you don’t need a powerful machine, you can use any computer, and the people looking after your files can afford to do a better job of it than you can. Disadvantages include some loss of control over your files and worries about confidentiality.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. Like everyone else, I’m horrified by the way an airliner has disappeared over the open ocean, with apparently nothing more than a storm to blame. None of us who fly will feel safe until we understand how that happened, and how we can stop it happening again.Grossi-7.png The information about what happened to the aircraft is contained in two so-called “black boxes” (although they are actually orange) which are held on board the aircraft, presumably now in some 4,000 metres of water. They are going to be pretty difficult to find and recover. And it’s not clear that they would survive a fall from 10,000m cruising altitude in the first place.

What I’m proposing here is that the flight information that the boxes record in civilian airliners be continuously transmitted back to land. The black box becomes a server at, maybe, Boeing or Airbus Industries. Information in transit would be encrypted and subject to the same controls as the black boxes are. When the worst happens, and an airliner crashes, we will always be able to reconstruct the flight information and cockpit voice.

Reports in the papers suggest that some telemetry was taking place, mentioning a “burst of automatic messages”. That’s some clue, perhaps, to what befell the aircraft and those aboard, but it’s nothing like as complete a record as the black boxes should hold.

Let’s hope that aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and safety regulators can make this happen.

posted by colin at 9:48 am  


  1. You’d have to have both remoate and local otherwise the whole system is depencdent on the transmitter. I wonder if getting near continuous data from all the aircraft flying is viable esp for long haul oceanic flights.

    Comment by Robin Capper — 6 June 2009 @ 10:48 am

  2. I’ve seen this subject come up before when an aircraft has gone down and there are problems finding or recovering the CVR/FDRs. Google around, you will find many discussions about it. Here’s a good example:

    I suspect it will happen eventually though.

    Comment by Perrin — 6 June 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  3. Interesting detail on the weather in the area at the time here;

    For major airlines at least there is already stream of data from a variety of sensors being relayed from the plane to the engineering base in more or less realtime.
    It would be relatively easy to mandate for key parameters to be mirrored to secure storage for use in the event of an adverse event.

    There is a safety/QC culture in several disciplines eg airlines, medicine etc whereby adverse events and near misses are analysed on a no-blame basis (in the first instance)to ensure faulty practice is identified and any lessons have a chance to be learnt. It would be useful to establish a similar discipline in Information Security!

    Comment by Alisdair McKenzie — 11 June 2009 @ 5:37 pm

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