Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New tool can ensure better safety on planes

Researchers have developed an instrument for fine tuning an airplane's digital flight-data recorder or "black box" so that it can pre-empt crashes and ensure greater safety for passengers.

John Hansman, professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says that current methods of analyzing black box data might miss vital information bearing on flight safety.

Accordingly, Mr Hansman, his colleagues at MIT and various researchers in Spain have devised the tool to spot glitches even before mishaps are triggered, according to an MIT statement.

Mr Hansman's team took cluster analysis, a common statistical approach, and tailored it to black-box data, for more comprehensive understanding of an aircraft's operation.

"The beauty of this is, you don't have to know ahead of time what 'normal' is," says Hansman, "because the method finds what's normal by looking at the cluster."

The researchers tested the technique on flight data they obtained from an international airline that no longer operates.

The dataset comprised 365 flights, all flown on Boeing 777s. The flights were undertaken over a period of one month, with various origins and destinations.

After examining the data more carefully, the team found that one flight took off with significantly less power than most, indicating either an incorrect thrust setting by the crew or a potential power-systems issue.

Another takeoff had erratic pitch behaviour, indicating that the pilot had difficulty rotating on takeoff.

A third flight was identified as being low on approach, with a higher-than-normal flap setting, creating drag that forced the plane to apply more thrust than usual before landing.