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The end of black boxes? Fredonia prof's invention could boost air safety

Junaid Zubairi is bright and meticulous. He is a computer scientist, with a doctorate from Syracuse University, and a full professor at SUNY Fredonia.

In other words, he is a smart man.

For the last several years, Zubairi has been pouring that intellect into a project that could save millions of dollars — and maybe lives. Last month, he was granted a United States patent for his Flight Data Tracker, a software system that could potentially replace the black box recorders in airplanes. Eventually, it could change the way airplane crashes are investigated — and perhaps even prevent some crashes from happening.

So this is worth repeating: Zubairi is a really smart man.

But this whole project started with something he simply didn’t understand.

“I had this thing in the back of my mind, that there are some idiots going around using the name of Islam and killing innocent people,” said Zubairi, a native of Pakistan who has lived full time in the United States with his family since 1999. “I was surprised. I was born as a Muslim, and I never had these kinds of teachings.”

Zubairi speaks in a low, level voice. He could be talking about how terrorists weaponize airplanes, cause explosions and destroy property. Or he could be instructing you on the finer points of his Flight Data Tracker, which is designed to send information from the cockpit to the ground in real time. Either way, he doles out his words quietly and with measure. It’s almost as if logic collides with emotion, and the facts wash over his feelings.

But listen to him carefully, and you’ll hear that his feelings – in this case, a sense of duty to his country (Zubairi is an American citizen) and devotion to his faith – are the catalyst for his work.

“I had this idea in my mind: What I can do in my field, let me do it,” Zubairi said. “Whatever I can do.”

For years, Zubairi quietly looked for what he could do. He wanted to use his expertise as a computer scientist to contribute to airline safety, but he had to find an unfilled need. He needed a specific problem to solve.

Zubairi found it about six years ago. In 2011, the black boxes from Air France Flight 447 were pulled from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The boxes  – which are actually bright orange contraptions installed in the tail of airplanes, and built to be virtually indestructible – were a vital find. They contained memory cards with flight data that helped reveal why the jet, which was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, plunged into the ocean. They helped provide answers for the families of the 228 people who died.

But the flight data recorders took two years, and $40 million, to find.

Zubairi, sitting one evening last week in the softly lit dining room of the Hamburg home where he lives with his wife and young adult children, offered other examples. In some crashes, the black box was recovered comparatively quickly (including Buffalo-bound Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed in 2009 in Clarence). In one case – Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in 2014 over the Indian Ocean – the black box has never been found; nor has most of the wreckage.

“It came to my mind: Let me try and think about some solution to this problem,” said Zubairi, who began work on his Flight Data Tracker in 2012.

Provocative questions

He began with a simple question, one that has been pursued by other scientists. If airplanes can provide Wi-Fi that allows passengers to message with people on the ground, then why not have the plane itself send vital flight data and cockpit recordings to the ground? In theory, that would eliminate the need for difficult-to-find black boxes by storing their information digitally.

One challenge is bandwidth. Passengers tweeting, texting and emailing doesn’t require nearly as much connectivity power as an airplane sending a constant stream of vital signs to Earth.

Another is money. Satellites easily could be used to transmit that information, but doing so is incredibly expensive.

Still another is motivation. Airlines are not required to stream flight data to Earth, and the pilots union has long been guarded about the ways in which flight information and cockpit recordings can be used.

If it’s expensive, not mandated and potentially contentious, why do it?

For those reasons, among others, airlines have clung to their black boxes. But Zubairi, sensing there is a time when that may change, set out to create technology that would make it easy and cost-efficient to effectively digitize black boxes.

“Black box is a very good technology,” he said. “It is solid. It is robust. It is indestructible. It helps in finding the real cause of the crash. But it is not needed anymore. It is time that we move on and we use our networking, which is everywhere now. Everything is interconnected. We are never out of touch. The planes have a very good, solid connection already. So why don’t we use that, and transfer the data to the ground in real time?”

How it works

Beginning in 2012, he started designing a software system that uses the existing infrastructure that connects airplanes with air traffic control towers. It works like this: When a plane is getting ready to depart a city, its onboard computer server transmits its destination to a server at that origin airport. The airport server sends the plane a list of airports it will fly over en route to the destination. From the air, the plane computer will connect with servers at each of those airports, transmitting black box data to the ground. This would include real-time data on dozens of factors, ranging from how much the plane is rolling (that is when the wings tilt up and down) to windspeed or cockpit recordings.

By having planes connect with multiple servers, Zubairi's Flight Data Tracker system avoids overloading any one central server. These multiple ground servers collect the information and send it back to the origin airport, where the information is stored.

(When a plane is flying over the ocean or a large desert, where there are no air traffic control towers, the more-expensive satellite option will have to be used.)

When the flight touches down, a full set of digital block box information is already collected and stored on a server. Information that is no longer needed – for example, cockpit recordings – can be deleted. But if something went wrong – say, a missed landing, or the worst-case scenario, a crash – then the black box information is immediately available.

In theory, that would allow investigations to move forward more quickly, and without the cost of finding the actual black box.

Beyond that, Zubairi is hoping the use of flight data streaming in real time can help “avoid a disaster.” If the information coming from the plane suggests something is wrong in the air, or if the plane is off course, there is a chance to correct it before the worst happens.

Working mostly alone

For the better part of three years, Zubairi worked days and nights perfecting this system on a computer model. Other than a handful of undergraduate students who assisted him from semester to semester, he worked mostly alone. Even when he was ready to apply for a patent in 2014, he took the solo route — and was initially rejected.

“Junaid did a lot of research,” said Steven Wood, a patent attorney with the Research Foundation for SUNY. “He read a bunch of patent applications and tried to educate himself as best he could on how to write a patent application. But it is a really technical, specialized exercise.”

After the initial rejection from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Zubairi began working with Wood and SUNY’s research foundation. Wood helped him rewrite the application, with tighter language that more clearly defined the usefulness and uniqueness of Zubairi’s invention.

Ultimately, after multiple rounds of questions, rejections and requests for clarifications, the patent – Zubairi’s first – was granted on Aug. 1, 2017. Zubairi, holding the gold-sealed patent document that was mailed to him, pointed out that this allows him to share the technology with the aviation industry through research and licensing agreements.

“It should not be proprietary, in my opinion,” he said. “It should be global, and it should be open, so everyone can see and they can work on it.”

Zubairi’s contribution has been made; now, he needs airlines and aviation companies to work on it, or support him in the next step of research. Right now, the Flight Data Tracker exists only as a computer simulation. The next phase is testing it on the ground, using actual servers and black boxes, and then in the air.

“I am laying the groundwork for the data to be available on the ground in real time,” Zubairi said. “Now it is the job of the aviation industry to build on top of that.”

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