WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 17, 2016): Egyptair’s MS804 cockpit voice recorder has been recovered but is badly damaged, and the more crucial flight data recorder – the other “black box” – is still missing.

This delay of almost a month is inexcusable, given that inexpensive readily-available technology could have told us exactly where the plane crashed, and provided all the information from both black boxes within hours, not now almost a month later, says MIT-trained Professor John Banzhaf, who has two U.S. Patents and many technical papers to his credit.

Floatable EPIRBs similar to those on small craft should have been released when the plane went under water, sending a signal to rescue satellites providing the exact location of the crash, as determined by their internal GPS navigation systems, and a second homing signal easily picked up by responding aircraft.

When those responding aircraft arrived and were led to the floating EPIRB by a strong homing signal, they should have found on each one a copy of both voice and data information recorded on solid state storage devices similar to the tough thumb drives many of us use every day, argues Banzhaf.

Instead, it has now been almost a month, and we have virtually nothing to confirm or deny informed speculation, based upon initial data, that the crash was caused by a explosion on the plane; a widely-discussed theory based upon data transmitted from its ACARS system just before the plane went down.

For example, The Telegraph reported: “Data from the final moments before EgyptAir flight MS804 crashed into the Mediterranean suggest an ‘internal explosion’ tore through the right side of the aircraft, a pilot said last night. . . A commercial pilot with a major European airline told The Telegraph that other parts of the data log suggested that windows in the right side of the cockpit were blown out by an explosion inside the aircraft. . . . Although no terrorist group has claimed responsibility, French detectives are examining a pool of around 85,000 people with ‘red badge’ security clearance that gives them access to restricted areas of Charles de Gaulle airport.”

But a simple piece of existing technology – known as a floatable EPIRB – could have told us exactly where the plane came down within minutes after it occurred, rather than requiring an expensive search lasting almost a month just to find the debris on the ocean floor, where recovery of black boxes may often be very expensive and perhaps even impossible, as may be the case here for one of them.

Also, a simple upgrade of such existing devices would make it possible to know not only exactly where the airplane went down, but also why, claims Banzhaf.

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 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 this case, Banzhaf notes, the batteries responsible for powering the pinging from these two black boxes were almost totally exhausted, since they are designed to last only about a month.

If the search had gone on even a week longer, we might never have found the wreckage or either black box, and might never know if the cause was an explosion, perhaps even a terrorist bomb.

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 black 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 moments of what was said in the cockpit.

Many EPIRBs made 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, 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 MS804 mystery and save millions in search expenses, says Banzhaf, but it’s not too late to begin requiring such devices on many large 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,