Curtiss-Wright Corp. and Honeywell said they plan to develop a new way for airlines to monitor and analyze flight data.

The companies plan to use real-time connectivity as a tool for the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) – commonly referred to as “black boxes” – for the commercial airline, cargo transport and business jet markets. The companies signed an agreement to develop the mandate-compliant voice and data recorders. As part of the new agreement, Curtiss-Wright will be the exclusive supplier for Honeywell’s recorders for the air transport and business aviation markets.

Black box recovered from a Boeing 767 involved in a 1999 EgyptAir crash. Source: NBCBlack box recovered from a Boeing 767 involved in a 1999 EgyptAir crash. Source: NBCUnder the agreement, the companies will jointly develop the hardware for the new black boxes, and Honeywell will modernize the software capabilities to access real-time data during flight. Operators may benefit from real-time data streaming and cloud-upload capabilities, which is intended to enable remote retrieval of data from the aircraft for storage or analysis.

How black boxes work

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), large commercial aircraft and some smaller commercial, corporate and private aircraft are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to be equipped with two "black boxes" that record information about a flight. Both recorders are installed to help reconstruct the events leading to an aircraft accident.

[Learn more from Engineering360 about standards related to cockpit voice recorders.]

Investigators probe the 2016 crash of a Mitsubishi MU-2 twin-engine turboprop aircraft in Canada. Source: TSBInvestigators probe the 2016 crash of a Mitsubishi MU-2 twin-engine turboprop aircraft in Canada. Source: TSBThe CVR records radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit, such as the pilot's voices and engine noises. The FDR monitors parameters such as altitude, airspeed and heading. Older analog units use one-quarter-inch magnetic tape as a storage medium. Newer models use digital technology and memory chips. Both recorders are installed in the most crash-survivable part of the aircraft, usually the tail section.

Each recorder is equipped with an underwater locator beacon to assist in locating the aircraft in the event of an overwater accident. A device called a "pinger" is activated when the recorder is immersed in water. It transmits an acoustical signal at 37.5 KHz that can be detected with a special receiver. The beacon can transmit from depths down to 14,000 feet.

The CVR records the flight crew's voices, as well as other sounds inside the cockpit. The recorder's "cockpit area microphone" is usually located on the overhead instrument panel between the two pilots. Sounds of interest to an NTSB investigator could be engine noise, stall warnings, landing gear extension and retraction, and other clicks and pops. From these sounds, parameters such as engine rpm, system failures, speed and the time at which certain events occur can often be determined. Communications with air traffic control, automated radio weather briefings, and conversation between the pilots and ground or cabin crew are also recorded.

By regulation, newly manufactured aircraft must monitor at least 88 parameters via the FDR. These include time, altitude, airspeed, heading and aircraft attitude. In addition, some FDRs can record the status of more than 1,000 other in-flight characteristics that can aid in an accident investigation. The items monitored can be anything from flap position to auto-pilot mode and smoke alarms.

With data retrieved from the FDR, investigators from the NTSB can generate a computer-animated video reconstruction of the flight. Investigators can then visualize the airplane's attitude, instrument readings, power settings and other flight characteristics.

The new CVR and FDR from Curtiss-Wright and Honeywell are expected to surpass the requirements of the upcoming 2021 European Aviation Safety Agency minimum 25-hour cockpit voice recording mandate. As part of the development of the new recorders, Honeywell will offer the product in several variants, including as a standalone CVR, as a standalone FDR or as a combined voice and flight data recorder.