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Industry calls for reinvention of the black-box flight recorder to assist searches

Ocean watch: A US Navy helicopter aboard destroyer USS Pinckney taking part in the search and rescue mission in the Gulf of Thailand.

Ocean watch: A US Navy helicopter aboard destroyer USS Pinckney taking part in the search and rescue mission in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: AP

As planes traverse the Gulf of Thailand looking for a Malaysian Airlines jet and the answers within its black box recorder, some aviation experts are calling for the devices to be reinvented to remove the need for prolonged searches.

The box could be sitting on the sea floor and regularly emitting a radio signal, which could be picked up by searchers on ships.

But after it took two years to find the data recorders of a 2009 Air France flight, a study by French aviation safety authorities found it would be feasible to create a system for sending some cockpit data from a plane wirelessly and before a crash, triggered, perhaps, by sudden loss of altitude.

Vital information: The black box can withstand months in the sea.

Vital information: The black box can withstand months in the sea. Photo: John Woudstra

Those calls have now been revived around the world, as the search for the Malaysia Airlines plane continues. Trevor Jensen, a consultant and former chief operating officer at Aer Lingus, said he believed calls for the black box to be reinvented would gain traction but needed to be studied closely.

"It's not that far away," he said. "It's a matter of us moving to it.''

The head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Martin Dolan, said planes were not currently able to send such volumes of data but that Australian and international authorities were considering such changes.

"There's work going on [at the International Civil Aviation Organisation] to develop international standards," he said. "Some of our technical experts are looking at it."

Black box is a misnomer.

The boxes are coloured "international-safety orange" and are about the size of a bank safety deposit box - one each for recording instrument data and cabin conversations - and built to withstand months in seawater.

The device was invented in 1956 by David Warren, a defence scientist from Melbourne, whose own father died in a mysterious plane crash, when he was nine years old.

The original prototype could make four hours' worth of recordings, encoded onto lengths of wire string, which could withstand post-crash fires better than tape.

A British company picked up commercial rights to the device and named them "red eggs". Australia was the first country to mandate the use of the recording devices in 1963, but by the end of the decade, the US and many other countries had followed.

The devices are typically located in the tail of the plane and contain hard drives encased in aluminium and stainless steel thick enough to withstand flames burning at 1000 degrees.

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