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. 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.