Live Blackboxes: Tracking and Verifying Aircraft in Motion

As the biggest ever hunt for a missing plane continues, many are beginning to wonder if we will ever know what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. If the plane has crashed, it has been suggested that it could take up to two years to find its wreckage. But if MH370 had been fitted with technology that made use of the cloud it may never have been lost in the first place.

Instead of relying on the combination of GPS, primary and secondary radar, and aircraft communications addressing and reporting systems (ACARS) to keep track of planes, we should be making sure they send regular flight information to the data centres in the cloud [1,2,3]. Planes would then send information such as aviation signals and pilot conversations as a compressed digital stream efficiently through satellite networks.

We still don’t know if MH370 disappeared because of a technical failure or a malicious security breach. It has been mooted that the pilot or a member of in-flight staff turned off the communication channels and used unusual flying manoeuvres to avoid being detected by the primary radars on ground and the secondary radars on board nearby planes. There are ways of responding to this scenario too. Although transponders can send a unique four-digit code to identify the plane as a way to help aeroplanes maintain a safe distance from each other when in flight, pilots can turn them off. If we are now in a world in which we have to question the intentions of pilots, there are more security implications to consider.

A conceivable solution to this problem is to run from the ground a simulation of a plane’s flight while it is in the air and to selectively compare the meaningful changes of information with those intermittently sent from the pilot and on board systems [1,2]. This would enable people on the ground to verify information such as altitude and course in real time and to double check that all is well. In normal circumstances this system would minimise risks and increase safety of the plane and its passengers. In case of foul play on board, the system would spot that the information sent from the plane was incorrect [4].


[1]Y. Yu (2014). If we’d used the cloud, we might know where MH370 is now. BBC Interview, April 2014.
[2]Yijun Yu (2015). The aftermath of mystery flight MH370: what can engineers do? Proceedings of the IEEE, 103(11) pp. 1948–1951.
[3]M. Barhamgi, A. K. Bandara, Y. Yu, K. Belhajjame, and B. Nuseibeh (2016). Protecting privacy in the cloud: Current practices, future directions, IEEE Computer, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 68–72, 2016.
[4]Yijun Yu, Mu Yang, and Bashar Nuseibeh (2017). Live Blackboxes: Requirements for Tracking and Verifying Aircraft in Motion. In: SCiA 2017 : 4th Software Challenges in Aerospace Symposium, 9–13 January 2017, Grapevine, Texas, USA.

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