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The $100,000 Device That Could Have Solved Missing Plane Mystery 461

Posted by timothy
from the no-need-for-you-to-miss-a-minute-of-the-agonizing-holocaust dept.
First time accepted submitter evidencebase writes "How can an airliner simply disappear, leaving no clues? And why do we have to wait until the black boxes are found to learn what happened to Flight MH370? As this article explains, there's no good reason that flight data needs to go down with the plane, because the technology to stream it to ground, from the moment things start to go wrong, is already on the market. It can be fitted to a commercial airliner for less than $100,000. But the industry has decided that it's not worth the expense. Tell that the the families of passengers on Flight MH370."
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The $100,000 Device That Could Have Solved Missing Plane Mystery

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  • not worth it (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rcarsey (158673) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:29PM (#46459181)

    black boxes are almost always recovered. the only thing it would save is a big oceanic search -- how often does that happen?

  • snark (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:32PM (#46459205)

    Tell that the the families of passengers on Flight MH370.

    Why, would that somehow bring them back to life?

  • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:33PM (#46459229)

    the huge cost of taking the plane out of service for x amount of time while the device is being installed (even if its installed at the same time as other maintanence is done, its still a non-zero cost)

    I'm confused, is it a "huge" cost, or a "non-zero" cost?

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:34PM (#46459231) Journal
    As much as penny-pinching on safety systems is a bad habit, is the emotive "zOMG, Tell the Families!!!" really the best argument that there is for these systems?

    It's been what, over three days now, with an aircraft that disappeared from radar at commercial cruising altitude without so much as a burst of garbled obscenities from the flight crew. Do you think that your family is clinging to those little flotation-device pillows, awaiting a rescue that would have come in time if only for upgraded real-time blackbox transmission?

    If anybody derives some sort of comfort from whatever they do manage to find, all the better; but this is all trying to recover data for failure analysis, not survivors.

    Now, if you want to justify real-time transmission, check out the amount of (incidentally not paid for by the airline) search gear that has been diverted from Malaysian, Chinese, and other sources to looking for the debris. Whole bunch of ships, airplane and helicopter overflights, diversion of what, 10 satellites? That starts to make the $100k look like savings.
  • by DriedClexler (814907) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:35PM (#46459249)

    Tell that the the families of passengers on Flight MH370."

    Oy gevalt! This again? When minimizing risk, you have to invest where you get the best returns in lives saved. Obviously, in retrospect, after an accident, you'll wish you had spent infinity on having more safety, but that's the wrong way to think about it.

    You should instead:

    1) figure out how much you're willing to spend per statistical life saved

    2) deploy safety measures up to that point

    It's not always going to make sense to keep throwing on all kinds of safety equipment simply to handle every black swan event you can think of -- remember, they do log airplane location remotely and continuously; it's just that that still wasn't enough in this case.

    You might as well advocate that planes start giving everyone a parachute, without realizing it makes flight so unaffordable as to push people to less safe modes of transportation.

    Comments like these promote a worse understanding of the issues.

  • Re:not worth it (Score:4, Insightful)

    by quenda (644621) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:35PM (#46459257)

    Yeah, that $100k is per aircraft. So two billion dollars for the world's commercial fleets. (around 20,000 jetliners)
    That's makes the search and recovery of black boxes look cheap. Very rarely is one lost permanently.

  • Re:Lat / Long? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lesincompetent (2836253) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:35PM (#46459261)
    Couldn't simply ACARS be adapted to do this?
  • Re:snark (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Cryacin (657549) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:36PM (#46459269)
    You obviously don't know about the concept of closure, or care enough about someone else to care about it.
  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:37PM (#46459281) Journal

    The fine article states that L-3 (who has a bit of a conflict of interest) says that streaming all data real-time would cost $300M/yr. The mfr of the "glass box" says it wouldn't stream data until there was an anomalous event, and so it wouldn't cost nearly that much.

    Who's right? Well, TFA states "Of course, that wouldn’t yield much information if a plane is blown out of the sky by a bomb, or suffers a sudden catastrophic structural failure at cruising altitude. But in those rare cases, conventional black boxes are really the only viable technology."

    So you either stream data all the time, or you miss the really crazy disappearances. Which is exactly the ones you WANT this data from. So to the families of passengers of MH370 - we don't know where your plane is because we didn't spend billions of dollars to equip every plane and then spend an extra $300Million a year to run the system.

    Oh, and since the transponder that relays back basic information failed on this flight, there's a chance that whatever took it out would have also taken out the full-data relay, and after spending all those billions of dollars we might *still* not be able to find it.

  • Re:Higher prices (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Carnildo (712617) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:46PM (#46459371) Homepage Journal

    The number of unrecovered black boxes is pretty damn low: in the past 25 years, only one airplane's recorders were lost. The rest were either destroyed in the crash, or deliberately not recovered.

  • -1 Flamebait (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Alomex (148003) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:47PM (#46459379) Homepage

    Tell that the the families of passengers on Flight MH370.

    -1 Flamebait

  • $100,000? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jtownatpunk.net (245670) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:53PM (#46459423)

    It shouldn't cost that much. Many planes already have data service (run thru satellites) that they sell to passengers. Shouldn't be that hard to tap into the available instrument data and send out a blurp every 10-15 seconds. Doesn't even need fancy 2-way handshaking. Just send the encrypted packets and grab them as they arrive at the NOC. Not a big deal if the occasional blurp gets missed. But, if they never get another blurp from a plane, at least they got the data right up to the point of disaster.

  • by Frobnicator (565869) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @07:56PM (#46459449) Journal

    I'm confused, is it a "huge" cost, or a "non-zero" cost?

    Both, because you need to multiply it by planes in service.

    A few seconds on Google shows there are around 20,000 registered commercial airliners, and around 145,000 registered aircraft (including commercial aircraft, corporate jets, personal airplanes, military aircraft, and so on.) It doesn't include non-registered aircraft, of which there are many.

    But the costs multiply. So when you start with $100K for the device plus installation, you are looking at $14B for the first pass. Then your small annual fee multiplies to perhaps fifty million every year in upkeep and service fees.

    If you are talking about a major aircraft like a commercial B777 passenger craft, the installation and upkeep is relatively small. These massive aircraft are expensive to buy and maintain. The amortized cost per passenger over a year's flights is going to be a fraction of a cent.

    When you are talking about smaller craft like the super common Cessna 172, the device is going to be about 1/4 of the cost of the airplane. All the little utility aircraft are the most common type of aircraft, even though most of us only associate airplanes with the giant cargo jets and passenger flights.

    Ultimately let's assume they are looking around $14B initial investment plus $50M/year continuous cost. All of that money to get a little information once every few years when an airplane gets lost over the ocean. Is it worth it? Perhaps it is worth it for the large commercial passenger airlines, but not for all aircraft.

  • by mythosaz (572040) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:05PM (#46459525)

    Should we remove radios and radar and GPS from the planes too? After all, they're just another thing that can break.

  • by CapOblivious2010 (1731402) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:06PM (#46459537)

    If you are talking about a major aircraft like a commercial B777 passenger craft, the installation and upkeep is relatively small. These massive aircraft are expensive to buy and maintain. The amortized cost per passenger over a year's flights is going to be a fraction of a cent.

    Come on, let's do some math instead of just guessing at the answer: if a plane seats 200 people, flies 4 segments/day, 300 days/year, and the device has a useful life of 10 years, that's $100K / 10 / 300 / 4 / 200 = about 4 cents per passenger segment. An order of magnitude more than "a fraction of a cent", but still pretty close to negligible.

  • Cost per use (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spasm (79260) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:08PM (#46459555) Homepage

    Ok, according to the FAA there's ~3,739 U.S. registered passenger jets which carry more than 90 passengers (http://atwonline.com/aircraft-amp-engines/faa-us-commercial-aircraft-fleet-shrank-2011). Cost to fit just U.S. registered aircraft with this device would therefore be just under $374 million.

    Number of U.S. registered passenger jets which can carry > 90 passengers that have crashed with any fatalities since 2000 is maybe 5 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accidents_and_incidents_involving_commercial_aircraft#2000), and the number of those where it wasn't immediately obvious where the wreckage was was zero.

    So in the US alone, we're talking close to $374 million dollars to fit out just aircraft that carry more than 90 people, for a return of nothing. I couldn't find a reliable estimate of the number of commercial passenger aircraft currently flying and capable of carrying > 90 passengers globally, but I did see a number of guestimates in the 15,000-20,000 range. Assuming there's only 10,000 currently active passenger planes in the world capable of carrying >90, that's $1,000,000,000 to fit them with this gadget. The number of planes since 2000 which went down with passengers on board which couldn't be immediately located is what? Two? The Malaysian Airlines one now and the Air France one a few years back?

    So if every passenger plane in the world capable of carrying more than 90 people had been fitted with this gadget since 2000 we'd currently be running at half a billion dollars per actual use. I can think of a *lot* of uses for half a billion dollars which would actually save tens of thousands of lives. There isn't a single case in the last 20 years where this gadget would have saved a single life - all it can do, at best, is provide slightly faster confirmation to grieving families that their loved ones were indeed dead and here's how it happened. Which is not trivial - I don't mean to invalidate what such news might mean to someone with a loved one who was on that flight - but oh, my, that's a staggering bill to just provide speedy confirmation of a loved one's death for a few hundred people.

  • Re:Yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CapOblivious2010 (1731402) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:16PM (#46459605)

    Once again, the free market fails where regulation would succeed - the former can only correct for the future AFTER everyone's dead and un-buried.

    Why do you say that? What makes YOU the authority on the "correct" answer? Maybe people are perfectly comfortable with the status quo - after all, it's not like this box would save anyone, it would just help to find their corpses a little sooner. Considering only a few hundred people a year die in commercial plane crashes (vs around 100 million total deaths per year), and the vast majority of those are found very quickly, it's not really that big of a deal. There are probably better ways to spend $100K per plane to improve the flying experience (safer, more comfortable, less TSA, whatever), yet you've suddenly decided that the best thing to do would have been to bump this box (which you never even heard of until today) to the top of the list!

  • Re:Yes. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Cederic (9623) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:25PM (#46459679) Journal

    Once again, the free market fails where regulation would succeed - the former can only correct for the future AFTER everyone's dead and un-buried.

    They'd be just as fucking dead even if you knew where to find the bodies.

  • by Cederic (9623) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @08:28PM (#46459715) Journal

    How much are those boxes? What's the cost to install them everywhere? What's our likelihood of a lawsuit?

    Multiply by the 78 other devices that might save a life one flight in 400 million.

    Or just accept that airline travel is already exceedingly safe, and surprisingly cheap, and choose to fly or not.

    should a giant plane smacking into the water allow for such a thing.

    Technically, yes - see the Hudson river landing for a fine example. But see my point above, and accept that sometimes you hit the sea so hard you die from the impact, sometimes you drown, and sometimes - if you're lucky, just like 28 million other people that day - you land safely at your destination.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @09:02PM (#46459963)

    By that logic, you can justify overpricing everything just because it's "on a plane".

    "Your drink sir, that'll be $112.50 because we're on a $100M plane."

  • by jittles (1613415) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @09:04PM (#46459981)

    Part of these resources are being provided by people or organizations or governments who just want to Do The Right Thing.

    Some more of these resources are being provided by those who see others Doing The Right Thing and thinking to themselves that "gee, if A can do it I should do it to show I'm just as good at DTRT as them".

    And the last little bit are doing it for a positive karma, so they can get away with Something Bad later on...

    A positive motivation for "doing the right thing" is the fact that these military crews have to stay proficient at their job. These emergency situations give them practice for the real world without having the dull feeling of a drill. Not to mention the fact that they would have spent the money flying those helicopters, planes, and sailing those ships regardless. The real question of cost is whether they were diverted from another mission of value, or whether they were just sitting in the south China sea practicing their ELINT skills?

  • Re:not worth it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by quenda (644621) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @09:14PM (#46460045)

    We are not saying it is unaffordable.
    We say the cost exceeds the very rare benefits.

  • Re:Wrong. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CapOblivious2010 (1731402) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @10:30PM (#46460481)
    Worldwide, thousands (probably millions) of people turn up missing every year - it's sad, but true. The number of people who would be found significantly sooner by this device probably averages around a couple dozen per year. What makes those people worth spending billions of dollars on?

    It's more likely you could use that same money to find a lot more than a couple dozen people by spending it more intelligently. The only thing that makes these people special is that they were rich enough to afford trans-pacific plane tickets, and they're in the news. If you think that makes them more important than other people, then YOU are the one barely attached to human reality.
  • by mjwx (966435) on Tuesday March 11, 2014 @10:34PM (#46460501)

    What does it matter, on a plane like the 777 that costs $260 to $377 *million* dollars to acquire? That's less than 4 hundreths of a percent of the acquisition cost. 100K$ is peanuts on the scale of costs it takes to acquire and operate a large airliner.

    Costs to acquire are often not the highest costs. Same with this, it may cost $100K to purchase, but how much to keep running?

    I read the article, the technology is flawed in two ways.
    1, it depends on the instrumentation or pilots detecting something going wrong. One of the leading theories in the AF447 accident was that an instrument was reporting incorrectly.
    2. it depends on satellite communication (which isn't cheap) and MH370 disappeared from RADAR and radio communications. What makes you think a dial on demand satellite connection would work.

    Besides this, much like the summary the article is full of half baked assumptions, attacks on the aviation industry, emotive language and thought terminating cliche's in the place of fact or at least tests and results. The aviation industry rejected their devices before because they dont add any real value due to the flaws I mentioned above. They are essentially trying to use a tragedy to sell something of dubious value whilst people are too emotional to think critically. I think FLYHT are scum.

  • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Wednesday March 12, 2014 @12:54AM (#46461063)

    Most people involved in an airplane crash survive the accident.

    are you high? did you just drink some sizzurp? why would you think that most people in an airplane crash survive the accident? Note that the only planes that could benefit from this locator are planes that disappear in mid-flight, because if they have a crash on the ground or in take-off/landing, then everybody already knows where it is.

    I assure you that when a plane falls out of the sky somewhere over the ocean, the survival rate is not high.

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