Inside the 'Black Box'

Sunday, 06 Apr 2014 08:45 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Image: Inside the 'Black Box'
Searchers for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 will be looking for an orange— not black box— in an effort to unlock the mystery of the jet's disappearance, The New York Times reported.

The idea of recording cockpit conversations is credited to David Warren, an Australian chemist, who in 1953 was involved in investigating the crash of a jet aircraft. "I kept thinking to myself . . . If only we could recapture those last few seconds it would save all this argument and uncertainty."

The first audio flight recorder used a cylinder of magnetized steel wire, according to the Times.

Warren traced the moniker "black box" to WWII-era British Air Force slang.

The first pre-audio recorder dates back to 1939 and was designed by François Hussenot, a French engineer. He hid the technology from the invading German army by burying it near an Atlantic Ocean beach in June 1940. Hussenot's camera-like device used mirrors to record to film an aircraft's altitude, air speed, and the position of the pilot's controls. The data was stored in a black box.

Later, as flight recorders became common and as technology evolved data was stored on spools of metal foil.

Flight-data recorders, with Warren's audio innovation, became mandatory for commercial airliners in the mid-1960s.

Recently, there have been calls for the black boxes to automatically uplink their data to satellites as flights progress. Because of volume, such an innovation could be expensive. There are about 30,000 commercial flights in the U.S. alone each day.

All black boxes are labeled "FLIGHT RECORDER — DO NOT OPEN," the Times reported.

The bright orange color is of little help if a plane crashes in deep seawater which is opaque. Seawater is impermeable to electromagnetic signals like radio waves, radar, GPS, and X-Rays, according to The Conversation.

The teams looking for flight MH370's black box will not be able to "see" the device in the dark ocean waters. Below about 100 meters, or 330 feet, the seawater is pitch black. Black boxes have pingers to emit sound, which can be picked up using sophisticated technology.

While sound does travel long distances even through very deep water it can also be distorted by undersea mountains making it difficult to use as a precise locating tool.

When pingers go silent, after their batteries run out, searchers switch to sonar to comb the ocean floor, sending out sound signals in search of return noises that would bounce off any wreckage. This is a time consuming process since much of the ocean floor is unmapped and each "hit" will need to be screened to rule out that it is not part of the natural topography, according to The Conversation.

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