What's the Deal With the Black Box?

I have spent my life on Mars, in a cave, with my fingers in my ears. What, pray tell, is a flight recorder?

Flight recorders are devices used in aircraft to record—you guessed it—flight information, which then may be used to aid any investigations into aircraft accidents or incidents.

There are two common types of flight recorders: flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR). FDRs record various aircraft performance parameters and operating conditions, such as time, altitude, airspeed, heading, aircraft attitude, flap position, control-column position, fuel flow and even whether the smoke alarms in the lavatory went off. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that older commercial aircraft record a minimum of 11 to 29 parameters, depending on the size of the craft. Newer aircraft (built after 8-19-02) are required to record at least 88 parameters.

CVRs record the audio environment in an aircraft's cockpit, including conversations, ambient sounds and radio communications between the cockpit crew and others.

The FAA requires that the recording duration is a minimum of thirty minutes, and most magnetic-tape CVRs employ a continuous loop of tape that cycles every 30 minutes, recording new material over the old. Sometimes, the two recorders are combined into a single FDR/CVR unit.

Some aircraft also employ a quick access recorder (QAR), which records data on a removable storage device and can be accessed with a more-or-less regular desktop computer (FDRs and CVRs require special equipment to read the recording). QARs are usually scanned during the flight for deviations from normal operations and/or parameters so that problems can be detected and fixed before an accident even occurs.

If they're used to investigate crashes, they must be pretty tough, right?

If I had to rate the toughness of a flight recorder, I'd put it right up there with Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Flight recorders are carefully engineered and constructed to withstand some less than comfortable conditions and usually have an impact tolerance of 3,400 Gs (one G is the g-force acting on a stationary object resting on Earth's surface. It is the force of Earth's gravity and equal to however much that object weighs. In an 3,400-G impact, the flight recorder hits something at a force equal to 3,400 times its own weight). They also have a fire resistance of 2012° F/30 minutes. They can withstand water pressure when submerged up to 20,000 feet underwater and usually have an underwater locator beacon with a six-year shelf life and 30-day operation capability.

The information the recorder gathers is stored within the device on a crash-survivable memory unit protected by aluminum housing, one inch of dry-silica material high-temperature insulation and a ¼-inch thick stainless-steel or titanium cast shell.

For high visibility in wreckage, the outside of flight recorders are coated in heat-resistant, reflective red, yellow or orange paint.

So, if it's painted red, yellow or orange, why is it called the black box?

There are a few theories about that.

The first explanation goes that after an early flight recorder for commercial flights—the "Red Egg"—was unveiled, a journalist pronounced it to be a "wonderful black box."

Another explanation says that when new electronic instruments were being added to Royal Air Force planes during World War II, they were covered in hand-made metal boxes and then painted black to prevent reflection. These electronics came to be collectively known as "black boxes" and the term then made its way into civil aviation and general usage post-war.

Still another explanation has it that the name is simply borrowed. In science and engineering, a "black box" is a device, system or object that can viewed solely in terms of input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.

How do you read a black box and what do you do with the info?

In the United States, after a black box is located, it's usually brought to the computer labs of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Transporting the boxes there is done with the utmost care so no further damage is done to the memory unit. If the plane crashed into a body of water, the black box is usually transported in a cooler of water until it can be handled and disassembled properly.

At the NTSB labs, the black box data is downloaded onto computers equipped with readout systems and analysis software supplied by the black box manufacturers. Extracting the data from a relatively undamaged recorder only takes a few minutes. In the case of a badly dented or burned recorder, the box has to be disassembled and the memory units removed, cleaned and connected to a working recorder.

The data on a CVR is reviewed and interpreted by a team of experts, usually including a representative from the airline involved in the accident, a representative from the airplane manufacturer, an NTSB transportation safety specialist and an NTSB air safety investigator. Meanwhile, the data on an FDR is used by NTSB investigators to reconstruct the events and conditions of the flight (FDRs are also used to analyze aircraft engine performance, the condition of aircraft parts and instruments and air safety issues). These processes can take weeks or even months, but, ideally, provide the investigators with some insight into the final moments of the flight and what caused the accident.

Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On

In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]

Google Adds 'Wheelchair Accessible' Option to Its Transit Maps

Google Maps is more than just a tool for getting from Point A to Point B. The app can highlight the traffic congestion on your route, show you restaurants and attractions nearby, and even estimate how crowded your destination is in real time. But until recently, people who use wheelchairs to get around had to look elsewhere to find routes that fit their needs. Now, Google is changing that: As Mashable reports, the company's Maps app now offers a wheelchair accessible option to users.

Anyone with the latest version of Google Maps can access the new feature. After opening the app, just enter your starting point and destination and select the public transit choices for your trip. Maps will automatically show you the quickest routes, but the stations it suggests aren't necessarily wheelchair accessible.

To narrow down your choices, hit "Options" in the blue bar above the recommended routes then scroll down to the bottom of the page to find "Wheelchair accessible." When that filter is checked, your list of routes will update to only show you bus stops and subways that are also accessible by ramp or elevator where there are stairs.

While it's a step in the right direction, the new accessibility feature isn't a perfect navigation tool for people using wheelchairs. Google Maps may be able to tell you if a station has an elevator, but it won't tell you if that elevator is out of service, an issue that's unfortunately common in major cities.

The wheelchair-accessible option launched in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston, and Sydney on March 15, and Google plans to expand it to more transit systems down the road.

[h/t Mashable]


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