But the problem seems to be the classic combination of not updating your beliefs, too much bureaucracy, and erroneous conclusions about the data (from both sides).
In articles such as "Why Do Airlines Keep ‘Black Box’ Flight Data Trapped on Planes? http://goo.gl/5d1REj ... we can read that nothing is being done about this because of a study from 2002 (yes, 12 years ago). It found that an U.S. airline flying a global network would need to spend $300 million per year to transmit all its flight data.
$300 million ?? Holy smackeroonies that's a lot of money.
And when journalists ask airline engineers, their response has since then been "The volume of information you're talking about is infeasible in terms of what it would cost to do that for every airplane" and "Another factor is that black boxes are nearly always recovered. In the past few decades, only the two jets that crashed on September 11 at the World Trade Center lost their flight data and voice recorders."
Yeah... well... this is the classic case of friction. They studied it 12 years ago, and it wasn't feasible, so it will never be feasible.
But is it true? Well, no... not even close. And here is why:
First of all, let's talk about the data. How much data does a flight recorder hold? The answer is 240 MB of crash-protected memory. (http://goo.gl/bf8Pg3)
Within this, they are capable of storing 25 hours of flight data + 2 hours of high-quality audio on 4 channels. (i.e. 8 hours in total). And that is if it's recording at full-tilt. That's the maximum.
How much bandwidth would an airplane need to upload that much data in just two hours? The answer is only 0.27 Mbps.
So how fast are the current in-flight wifi systems that allow passengers to surf online while flying around the world? Well, we turn to Google and search for people doing a speed test from their devices while being on planes. And you can find hundreds if not thousands of people reporting their in-flight speeds. Obviously, the speeds vary wildly. Some are reporting quite high speeds of 1-2 Mbps, but only over land. But from what I can tell, the most general upload speeds are around 0.3-0.4 Mbps.
In other words: Data flight recorders holds 240 MB for every two hours of complete data (data + audio), requiring 0.27 Mbps to transmit. The passengers on board the planes can upload at speeds around 0.3-0.4 Mbps.
The current level of technology is thus more than capable of LIVE streaming flight data to the ground. Airplanes have so much bandwidth that the passengers can do it from their phones.
And remember, this is the maximum amount of data possible. Why send that? Take audio. Sure, it would be nice to have 4 channels of high-quality audio. But why not just combine all 4 channels into one... and then send that at medium quality. And then only record sounds above a certain level (so as to not record it continuously, but only when people are actually talking). This would probably bring the streamed data requirements down by quite a bit.
And you don't need super-expensive equipment to do this. Any ordinary laptop would be sufficient (or a Mac mini). Sure, that sounds silly (and I'm sure the FAA would not agree), but we still have the flight recorders for in-depth analysis for later. The reason why we need the data streamed is just to get the essentials.
But we do not even need to do this. Current in-flight wifi systems can deliver the bandwidth needed for all the data right now. Trimming it down just gives us more of a buffer zone.
Of course, none of this helps as long as the aviation industry is stuck with the outcome of a 12-year old study. Even when everything else has changed all around them (including in-flight internet), they still believe that it would cost $300 million per airline to transmit 0.27 Mbps of data, and as Bruce Coffey, the President of L-3 recorder unit said in 2009: "I don't think it's going to happen in my career. Change occurs very slowly in this industry. I think eventually if satellite transmission rates become affordable, then…you will have some operators looking at this."
Heads up, Bruce. We have already reached this point. Get cracking!
Of course, this might not have help us find Malaysia Airlines Flight MH37. For all we know, the electrical system might have been the first thing to fail, causing the in-flight system to go offline. But hey...