Investigators working to determine the cause of Tuesday’s German jetliner crash in the southern French Alps might benefit from flight data recorder research conducted at the University of Dayton.
The UD Research Institute is the only facility in North America with the capability to conduct impact shock testing on memory modules on aircraft flight data and voice recorders, also known as “black boxes,” to determine whether the data stored on the module will survive a plane crash, university officials said Wednesday.
Researchers at UDRI’s Impact Physics Laboratory in Dayton simulate aircraft crash impacts by shooting a black box memory module out of a 12-inch-diameter, 40-foot-long cannon at 350 m.p.h. The module comes to a dead stop within 6.5 milliseconds when it smashes into an aluminum honeycomb barrier 18 inches from the cannon’s muzzle.
“The gun is designed to launch the flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder to simulate the crash of the aircraft and subject the memory module to to an impact that would potentially cause damage to the recording medium,” said Kevin Poormon, a UDRI senior research engineer.
The memory module, which is similar to a computer hard drive, is then sent to the manufacturer, which must demonstrate it can download the data stored on it after the test to meet federal safety standards. If the data isn’t recoverable, the module fails the test.
UDRI has conducted about $500,000 in sponsored black box research over the last 25 years. The tests are done infrequently, as warranted by new materials or manufacturing processes, Poormon said. The most recent tests were performed in October, and more are scheduled in the coming weeks.
University officials declined to disclose the company currently sponsoring the research.
UDRI started conducting black box research in 1990 when flight data recorder standards changed, requiring them to take up to 3,400 g-forces, which measures the force of gravity or acceleration on a body.
“The designs and materials of those memory modules have changed so that they can withstand those higher g-loads, the temperatures associated with fire, deep-sea pressure and crush response during impact,” Poormon said.
On Wednesday, French investigators cracked open a mangled black box from Germanwings Flight 9525 and extracted audio from its cockpit voice recorder. However, they gained no immediate explanation for why the plane dropped unexpectedly and smashed into a rugged Alpine mountain, killing all 150 on board.
The orange cockpit voice recorder — dented, twisted and scarred by the impact — is considered the key to knowing why the pilots lost radio contact with air traffic controllers over the French Alps and then crashed Tuesday during a routine flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.
Poormon examined photographs of Flight 9525’s cockpit voice recorder and said the cylindrical memory module appeared to be “pretty intact.”
“The rest of the unit was damaged, but the memory module itself looked in decent shape. Hopefully, they will be able to gain data off that to reconstruct what happened,” he said.
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