The great minds of the New York Times are wondering (editorial) why we don’t have streaming data from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. (As previously noted here, none of the great minds of the New York Times have a technical background.) How much could it possibly cost to send back data at intervals?
It turns out that the retail cost of circuitry that will do the job is about $1000 (in the boutique quantities that the aviation industry buys; probably closer to $10 if added to every Honda Accord). I wrote about this a bit in my Heli-Expo notes:
Spidertracks is interesting because an FAA-approved GPS costs $5-15,000 and an FAA-approved Iridium phone installation is about $30,000. The Spidertracks box includes one of each for $1000 plus $1.90 per flight hour for Iridium fees to send back position reports.
For retrofitting a certified airliner the numbers above should probably be more like $500,000. I.e., the government regulations that the New York Times is fond of advocating add a factor of perhaps 500X to the cost of doing what they now want.
This is sort of the same situation as for the Asiana 777 that crashed in San Francisco. Recall that the ground-based instrument landing system radio beacons were inoperative that day so the four pilots decided to fly a visual approach, with the same results as five U.S. Air Force officers (three pilots; two flight engineers) flying a similarly sized C5 cargo plane back in 2006 (story). Equipment that enables a GPS-based precision autopilot approach costs about $500 in an experimental airplane (minimal regulation), about $10,000 in a crummy four-seater (onerous regulation), and perhaps $1 million in a Boeing 777 (crazy intense regulation). Because airlines don’t want to pay a 2000X markup for regulation they generally fly with whatever avionics came with the airplane.
[This is not to say that I am advocating deregulating or privatizing aircraft and avionics certification. Only pointing out that we have as a society made a choice that we would rather stick with risks that we understand, e.g., 20-50-year-old technology in airliners, than suffer from the risks of innovation, e.g., letting passengers use Kindles and iPads.]