I am just reading the latest news on the air plane crash that happened couple days ago and it dawned on me that one too many times have I read a story on the NY Times where after black box is obtained, it provided no additional information and almost always resulted in mystery.

MH370 of course demonstrated the failure of a tool such as the black box which has limited battery and no accessibility. Many commented at that time even my own phone can be quickly located once lost, how do they lose a component in a couple million dollar passenger plane?

Air Indonesia crash further demonstrated how due to noise, the recorded data cannot be made out exactly what happened. Yes, that is precisely the problem with a voice recorder - noise is captured as well as speech and if SNR is high enough, you don't hear the speech. You would have thought engineers in this century knew better.

Many have advocated a live video streaming device such as those for CCTV. Other have suggested float on water or a better accessed versions of modern black boxes. What is the technological infeasibility here that is preventing electrical engineers from taking a more active stance towards creating a better black box? What are some of the ways that a better black box can be made?

  • $\begingroup$ Remove the black box from the plane completely, and have everything streamed live to a constellation of satellites. $\endgroup$
    – Majenko
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ and almost always resulted in mystery do you have any citations to back up your claim? I believe, without citation, that the mysteries are in fact a small minority. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Many commented at that time even my own phone can be quickly located once lost" Yes, when your phone isn't underwater. Of course there were people on MH 370 with phones. Locating remote boxes hundreds or throusands of feet underwater is much harder. Also, the voice recorder is not just to record speech. It's also to record cockpit warnings, aural alerts, stick shaker motion, any audible damage to the aircraft, and even evidence that an aircraft was hijacked. Having audio recodings may not always give you exactly the information you want, but that in no way makes them useless. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


We have this topic well covered here, here and here (which is the granddaddy of them all).

Basically, it comes down to two issues:

  1. Regulation: It takes a long time for innovations to be approved, especially in safety-related applications.
  2. On long-range flights there are long stretches of no radio contact (except maybe for a satellite connection), so streaming becomes impractical due to the data volume.

Black boxes have been improved a lot since their introduction and they continue to get better. Please let the investigators find and analyze the recordings first before jumping to conclusions.


Are plane's black boxes essentially useless tool in the modern age

No, they are very, very useful tool.

In MH370, somebody clearly took some care in stopping any position reports from the plane, so if it had any kind of data streaming, it would most likely have been cut as well.

In QZ8501, if the recording was streamed, it would still contain the same data, so streaming it wouldn't help. Besides the “noise” is the warnings the system produced which are important part of the information the investigators need. What I am not sure is whether the content of the ECAM screen is recorded in the FDR; which warnings were generated is probably the most important bit of information in that accident.

In many other accidents, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder provided exactly the information that was needed to investigate the accident.

Yes, they could be improved. There are sure some engineers working on it. It however takes time to get any improvement in production, because every new black box design must first be thoroughly tested whether it's sufficiently resilient and reliable.