Missing aircraft: time to get serious about the internet of things

The fact that an airliner can vanish in the days of broadband on an airplane is an damning indictment of how we're failing to take the internet of things seriously.

It seems almost unbelievable that in the early 21st century, we could just lose a commercial airliner. That’s exactly what’s happened, though.

As aviation journalist Mary Kirby puts it:

News that air traffic control has lost all contact with a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 carrying 239 people – and that we’re potentially witnessing a major tragedy in the making – has left the world stunned that a modern aircraft could just disappear in 2014.

Surely, if we can get broadband onto aircraft, we can get black box data off it in near to real time? Well, yes, according to a report on Mary’s Runway Girl Network:

Streaming flight data has significant advantages in rescue and recovery, as well as corrective action because of the immediate availability of information which would assist in a prompt determination of failure modes when accidents occur. They would avoid delays, confusion, and suffering for the families impacted by such tragedies. They would significantly expedite accident investigations, reducing the dependency on limited data and voice recordings. This is why the regulatory authorities would support these efforts and approve them.

So, why don’t more planes have the technology? UK Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Richard Taylor gave Marisa Garcia a depressing but familiar answer:

He says Airbus and Boeing should be encouraged to take action and modernize the technology on board their aircraft. The only rationale for delay is economic, but the regulatory authorities do not make those decisions, nor can they control the costs.

In other words: cost.

We’re happy to put broadband into planes as a passenger convenience – but not as part of the infrastructure of aviation safety and reporting.

In the new normal, connectivity is not a toy

For digital technology to truly become the new normal, we need to move beyond this “toy” stage of thinking of connectivity. Phone and apps are great – they are quite genuinely changing life around us right now. But they’re not the end state of this process we’re going through. Unless we can start applying this thinking to the world around us more pervasively, we’re not really exploring its full potential.

Some might look at this and think – isn’t this just the “internet of things”? And the answer is “yes, yes it is.” But right now, we’re obsessing about connected appliances and toys, when we should be thinking about using that sort of technology to make sure we know exactly what happens to a commercial airliner and all this precious human lives it carries. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. We can do the fun and the serious alongside each other. But right now, it feels like the balance is the wrong way round.

Surely that’s more important that catching up on your e-mails in business class – or a tweeting toaster.