How Smart Engines, New Data Strips, And A $40 Billion GPS System Are Making Air Travel Safer

While the investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, here's a look at the latest technological innovations keeping the vast majority of flights safely on course.

The mysterious disappearance of Flight 370 has reignited public interest in airplane safety—and in the technology that keeps aluminum tubes safely flying through the skies at hundreds of miles per hour. As with many other things, there's a burgeoning cottage industry in aviation safety that even has its own trade shows (headline speaker: astronaut Chris Hadfield).

The intense interest in the ongoing mystery surrounding Flight 370 notwithstanding, the many organizations and corporations developing safety tools for passenger jets are doing their job: 2013 had one of the lowest rates of commercial aviation incidents in history.

Here are some of the most interesting products and tools making the overwhelming majority of flights safe:

NextGen: Described by the Federal Aviation Administration as "one of the biggest public works projects in our lifetime," the over $40 billion NextGen is an ambitious effort to rebuild America's air traffic control systems. Despite the rise of GPS navigation in everyday life and the rise of computers, most airports in the United States still use sheets of paper in binders and radar to track air traffic. While paper makes air traffic controllers more secure from hacker attacks, it also slows response time, creates massive gridlock in the skies, and hampers response in emergency situations. The ambitious NextGen project is a government-funded attempt to switch air traffic control from ground-based radar systems to satellite-based GPS systems.

NextGen's goals consist of creating—for the first time ever—real-time displays of air traffic for both pilots and air traffic control, the introduction of digital communications between planes and air traffic control, the introduction of a single national reporting system, and replacing nearly 20 separate voice systems used across the United States with a single system. Originally scheduled to be fully implemented by 2025, NextGen keeps on getting delayed and having costs spiral out of control; a recent internal FAA paper said full implementation might be delayed by 10 years, and cost two or three times more than the original $40 billion estimate.

Electronic Data Strips: Air traffic controllers record flight information on paper strips in the United States; the small pieces of paper are used in the hectic control centers to quickly record necessary information. But in Canada and Europe, air traffic controllers have increasingly adopted electronic flight strips by manufacturers such as Frequentis and AviBit.

A tablet-sized screen displays a series of tiles which visually resemble paper flight strips; these strips are then filled in via stylus, keyboard, or mouse. The main innovation here is the increase in speed for retrieval: Past records are electronically searchable, which cuts down on the considerable expense of searching through large quantities of paper records.

Satellite Radio for Pilots: When aircraft fly over oceans, they have traditionally used high-frequency radio to communicate. While this has been an accepted solution for a long time, radio also comes with considerable static. A new technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS), increasingly used by airlines, uses satellite uplinks to send real-time data from the aircraft instead. This allows for changes like aircraft being able to choose faster flight paths over the ocean and getting much more reliable information. ADS is part of the NextGen program and is also being adopted by the European Union. There's also an environmental bonus; ADS allows air traffic control to receive much more precise info on aircraft locations, which means planes can be spaced more closely together—saving considerable amounts of jet fuel.

Smart Engines: The much-heralded Internet of Things consists of putting sensors and data-collecting devices into every imaginable consumer and industrial good, which then pings far-away servers every so often with all sorts of information. Airplane engines are a part of that revolution too; Rolls-Royce's jet engines contain sensors which constantly send information about all sorts of engine performance to ground-based monitors. Boeing has an very similar system which Malaysia Airlines reportedly opted out of. (U.S. officials aren't so sure.)

The sensor systems in Boeing and Rolls-Royce's engines are primarily used for maintenance purposes; they detect when parts are failing or suffering wear before they impact aircraft performance, which saves airlines large sums of money. However, they can also be used to diagnose in-air incidents. U.S. officials believe smart-engine data from Boeing indicates Flight 370 flew for hours after it disappeared. Malaysian officials dispute the report.

[Image: Flickr user Dave Heuts]

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