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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Make flight data recorders ejectable

LAST WEEK, I criticized the basic Commercial Aircraft Location Communication System using transponders as totally inappropriate and inadequate. The cheap Global Positioning System in my car informs me the real position of my automobile within 75 feet accuracy at all times. There are 24 satellites circling around the Earth, and the system provides geographically accurate position data on real time to anyone who has a GPS receiver.

In order for an commercial aircraft to express its position and flight data, one needs to transmit the following set of data: date/time (local), airline, flight number, aircraft model and serial number, latitude, longitude, altitude, heading, air speed, outside temperature, fuel on board.

The amount of data to be transmitted in byte is about less than 150 bytes per transmission, and in the computer terms that is a very small quantity. If the aircraft transmits that packet assembly every one minute, that is sufficient to determine the whereabouts of the aircraft precisely through every one mile of its journey.

The idea is to receive transmission from all the flying commercial aircraft, and place the data on the Internet, thus making them available for airlines at all times. Instead of sending inquiries to each aircraft in the air manually and trying to get response out of transponders, the base station will continue to receive the flight data on real time.

There are roughly 40,000 commercial aircraft in the world today. Let's make it 100,000 to cover the future increase. Only a fraction would be flying at once, so the number of communicated bytes are still very small and manageable. I suspect that the excess capacity of currently available satellite communication networks up in the air is more than sufficient to carry all the commercial aircraft transmission every one minute while in the air.

By setting up this constant flight data availability system, any loss or accident of an aircraft would be instantly detected and reported. The transmitter at the aircraft cannot be shut down by the deck personnel, and it starts transmitting flight data the moment the engines are turned on, and stops its transmission when engines are shut down.

Some duh moments

I dropped my eyeglasses on the hard floor, and one of the pads fell off. It couldn't be reinserted. So I decided to go to Wal-Mart to buy a pair of plastic pads. While waiting for service, a tall man said hello. He asked me if I am the guy writing an invention article on the newspaper. We started a conversation. He asked, "Can I ask a dumb question?" I said: "There is no such thing as dumb question. Go ahead, ask."

This gentleman works at a Navy Yard installation and is an engineer. He has been wondering why the flight data recorder sinks with the plane when it hits water instead of jettisoning itself with a flotation device so that we can find it with ease.

I said to him I was planning to write the exactly same question next week in my column.

He was a tall handsome middle-aged man who spoke softly. He continued: "Why couldn't the flight data recorder be mounted on the tail of an airplane instead of near the front where it has more chance of getting destroyed in a crash?" I answered: "Yes, and why couldn't it be encased in an ejectable flotation enclosure so it can be jettisoned away from the aircraft? Once landing either on the ground or water, it would be so much easier to find it and pick it up." As it stands now, the flight data recorder would sink with the aircraft to the depth of the Indian Ocean about 4 miles down. As of this writing we don't even know if the plane went down there in the first place.

FIG 2 shows the number of bytes required to transmit the real time flight data from the plane to the ground through satellites worldwide constantly every one minute or whatever the interval they decide.

This Navy-yard engineer and I fully agreed. However, the engineering discussion we just had on the floor of Wal-Mart isn't unique at all, I believe. There have been thousands of identical conversations held all over the world since MH370 disappeared on the early morning of March 8. Anywhere engineers and other people interested in the engineering matters like us 99 percent inventors gather this must have been a main topic of the water-cooler conversation.

This last paragraph is the main purpose of this column today. Throughout human history engineering design errors of unbelievable and stupendously senseless nature crop up from time to time. In many cases these design misconceptions, or whatever you wish to call them, successfully entered in use and proliferated many years without any basic changes or totally new approach.

In a tale by Aesop (later adapted by Hans Christian Andersen for "The Emperor's New Clothes") a king is walking naked in a procession in a new "suit of clothes" his weavers say are invisible. Nobody among his subjects lined up along the streets says anything except one kid, who shouts: "The king is naked."

This kid did it because he was honest and had nothing to lose. My suggestion for us 99 percent inventors is to do the same when you see wrong engineering design concepts in grand scale.


Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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