Existing Technology – Floatable EPIRBs – Could and Should Have Told Us Where
WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 15, 2016): It has been almost a month since A320 EgyptAir disappeared from radar and crashed somewhere in the Mediterranean, but only now – with the batteries in the black boxes sending out the pinging signal almost exhausted – has the wreckage finally been located.
But a simple piece of existing technology – known as floatable EPIRBs – should have told us exactly where the plane came down within minutes after it occurred.
Also, a simple upgrade of such existing devices would make it possible to also know why, says MIT-trained Professor John Banzhaf, who has two U.S. Patents and many technical papers to his credit.
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Ships are required to have on board EPIRBs [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons], a technology which has been in use for decades in marine environments. When activated, these devices send out an emergency distress signal to search and rescue satellites which indicates the identity of the caller.
If linked – as even small personal hand-held EPIRB devices now commonly are – to a GPS locator of the kind found in many cell phones, the devices will also provide their location to the satellites with almost pinpoint accuracy, and also permit rescuers or others who subsequently arrive on the scene to hone in on its signal.
“If all of this can be packed into a small hand-held device weighing only ounces, which can transmit your identity and location anywhere in the world for at least 24 hours, and is even waterproof and designed to float to the surface, there is no reason why one or more EPIRBs on planes should not be able to do the same with a signal many times more powerful, and able to last for weeks if not for months.”
“This is much better than black boxes sending out pings from vast depths which can be detected only by craft closer than a few miles away searching a wide swath of ocean,” says Banzhaf.
In addition, since all of the vital information contained in black boxes can now be stored in tiny thumb-sized computer storage devices, which have no moving parts and are therefore largely invulnerable even to forces generated in plane crashes, there is no reason why the EPIRB device could not also store duplicates of the same data which is now stored only in the plane’s black boxes.
It’s a lot easier to recover this invaluable data from one or more floating EPIRB devices than to try to retrieve the actual block boxes which may be deep under water, says Banzhaf.
These devices would store – and provide to authorities – detailed information about virtually everything that happened to the plane, including the last several hours of what was said in the cockpit.
Many EPIRBs designed for ocean use are designed to be “floatable,” so that they are automatically released if the water pressure on them exceeds that found at a specified depth.
Making it possible for rescuers to locate exactly where the plane hit the water, and to find almost immediately – floating on the surface – detailed information about what happened, would be far preferable to having authorities try to search thousands of square miles of ocean bottom listening for a faint ping before the battery runs out, and then trying to recover this invaluable information from the ocean bottom, says Banzhaf.
It’s obviously too late to rely upon such devices to solve the A320 mystery and save millions in search expenses, says Banzhaf, but it’s not too late to begin requiring such devices on many larger aircraft.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network