What Is a Black Box?

When an aircraft has an accident and crashes, it is crucial that investigators are able to piece together the sequence of events that led to the incident, allowing for research to be done for the means of increasing safety and preventing further hazards. With a device known as a flight data recorder (FDR), flight data such as speed, position, and altitude can be stored and analyzed for accident investigation. In the present, flight data recorder equipment will often be paired alongside a cockpit voice recorder (CVR), forming an assembly that is commonly referred to as a black box. As one of the most important devices for the continuous goal of improving aircraft safety, it can be very useful to have a general understanding of how black boxes work and their various features.

Black boxes have existed in various forms since the first powered flight, the Wright Brothers using a simple flight recorder that could measure flight duration, speed, and engine revolutions. As civil aviation rapidly expanded in the 1940s, the industry made great strides to improve the abilities of black boxes to tackle a rise of aircraft crashes. Through collaboration with industry leaders like General Electric, devices were eventually created with the ability to garner readings from sensors and other instruments.

Black box technology really took off in the 1950s when professor James J. Ryan invented the VGA flight recorder with a compartmentalized design. The following decade, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) came about, expanding the capabilities of the black box with the addition of a system that could capture pilot voices and conversation. Despite new features being added for increased data gathering over time, the most important advancement made to the black box was the improvements made to the construction and design of the device, allowing it to withstand crashes with ease. While early iterations of the technology could withstand around 100 Gs of force without breaking, modern devices can withstand upwards of 3,400 Gs depending on the duration of the impact.

While early black boxes were somewhat simplistic in their construction and capabilities, modern versions feature many standard parts that are important to the overall role of the device. Generally, the most common elements found in all black boxes are the flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder, power supply, memory unit, electronic controller board, input devices, and a signal beacon. FDRs and CVRs both require power to function, and they utilize 115 VAC or 28 DC power. To ensure that the black box and its data remains intact for a long period of time during a search, such devices feature a battery that supplies 30 days of continuous operation. As the most important data is what is recorded leading up to the crash, the crash survivable memory unit (CSMU) retains 25 hours of digital flight information. With the aircraft interface port, the blackbox can establish a connection with various instruments and systems to obtain data.

As discussed before, black boxes are one of the most important elements of an aircraft as they ensure that investigators have ample ability to determine how an accident came about. To guarantee that data will be available for analysis, there is a heavy focus on manufacturing an indestructible device that can withstand even the most intense conditions. To protect the memory unit and integrated circuits, a multi-layer design is used where steel armor plates, insulation, paraffin, and other materials are used for protecting the unit against impact, extreme temperatures, and more. Heavy-duty fasteners are also used to bolt many sections together, and various access covers ensure accessibility and protection.

While the design process may be robust, it is the quality phase where the integrity of black boxes is truly put to the test. During quality control, black boxes may be shot from cannons, dropped with weights, crushed with pressure, stabbed, cooked for long periods of time under intensive temperatures, and submerged in deep salt water for nearly a month. After testing, diagnostics will be run to test the health of memory circuits and units and see their retention capabilities. As black boxes are designed with a service life of nearly 15,000 hours, they rarely need to be maintained.

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