UN telecom head calls for real-time flight data in wake of Malaysian airline tragedy

Minister for Communications and Multimedia of Malaysia Ahmad Shabery Cheek calls on the ITU to develop leading edge standards to facilitate the transmission of flight data in real time. Photo: ITU/E. Homed

1 April 2014 – In the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the ongoing hunt for the plane, the head of the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) today committed the agency to the search for a real-time inflight communications system, drawing on new technology to help improve on the 50-year-old “black box” model.

“We must ensure that aircraft can be tracked in real time so that such an unprecedented and tragic incident does not occur again. ITU is committed to work on the standards that will take advantage of big data and state-of-the-art cloud computing,” said Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, in the margins of the ITU World Telecommunications Development Conference in Dubai.

His comments came following a passionate plea for the UN agency’s assistance from the Malaysian Minister for Communications and Multimedia, Ahmad Shabery Cheek, who said that with the advancements in information and communication technology (ICT), “we should be able to retrieve and analyse [flight data] without necessarily locating the black box.”

He added: “I urge ITU to work with industry to develop a better way to constantly monitor …what is happening in the cockpit...I believe this simple change may have brought a different outcome today.”

A multinational search operation is under way for Flight 370, which was carrying 239 passengers when it disappeared on 8 March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Search teams are working with the Malaysian Government trying to find the black box containing flight data before the batteries run out, reportedly by the beginning of next week.

According to ITU, all commercial airlines and corporate aircraft are required to install and use ‘black boxes’ to track a number of flight parameters. The flight data recorder (FDR) is designed to record the operating data from an aircraft’s systems, including pressure altitude, airspeed, vertical acceleration, magnetic heading and position of control systems.

Cockpit voice recorders, or CVRs, record what the crew say and monitor any sounds that occur within the cockpit. These monitoring equipment provide investigators with vital clues about the cause of an accident.

“ITU will invite avionics and aircraft manufacturers along with satellite operators and airlines to work on new standards to track aircraft in real time,” said Malcolm Johnson, Director of ITU’s Standardization Bureau. “We share the anxiety expressed by Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek and will take steps to urgently address this situation.”


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