Lower-cost FDRs likely for small jets

 - December 7, 2006, 11:09 AM

A Massachusetts company that has developed a flight data recorder (FDR) for aircraft in the category of the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 piston singles says the technology could also be applied in Part 23 business jets and turboprops, at a fraction of the price of current-generation FDRs.

Alakai Technologies of Hopkinton, Mass., has been working on its lightweight, low-cost FDR for the last year-and-a-half and has pitched the product to SATSAir, an air-taxi operation that flies a fleet of SR22s throughout the Southeast.

Word that an FDR for Cirrus and other small general aviation airplanes has moved beyond the conceptual stage and is about to become a bona fide product is particularly noteworthy in the wake of the crash of former New York Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle’s SR22 into a Manhattan apartment building in October. The NTSB has been trying to piece together the airplane’s last moments aloft, a task that would have been simpler had it carried an FDR.  

Brian Morrison, Alakai’s president and founder, said the timing of the company’s announcement had little to do with the Lidle crash, but he agreed the technology could have assisted accident investigators in their search for a cause. “The Corey Lidle crash wasn’t the impetus for our announcing this; it was just unfortunate timing,” he said, noting its FDR has been in development for some time, “but yes, it’s a case where, had this box been on board, they would have had data that was accessible immediately and protected to high levels of shock and temperature.”

Storing Large Quantities of Flight Data
The Alakai recorder receives inputs from a number of onboard systems and stores them permanently in its memory. Unlike current-generation flight recorders, which are required to store as little as 20 hours’ worth of data, Alakai’s compact unit can retain 10,000 hours of flight information, recording around 60 separate flight parameters to its solid-state hard drive, which starts up as soon as power is switched on.

Some of the parameters stored by Alakai’s digital FDR include GPS-derived latitude, longitude and altitude; pressure altitude; ktas and kias; groundspeed; vertical speed; engine rpm, OAT, flap position; stall warning state; and low fuel warning. The unit in the Cirrus mounts to the floor under the pilot seat and next to the L-3 Skywatch traffic advisory system. Ground and flight testing of the hardware has been completed, Morrison said, and an STC for the unit is expected this month.

The current version of the Alakai FDR interfaces only with simple RS-232 or -422 serial bus connections, but Morrison said the product could be modified to accept inputs from the Arinc 429 databuses commonly found in business airplanes. “We’ve had some inquiries from avionics manufacturers about adding this into their avionics suites, and that’s something we’re looking seriously at,” he said.

An FDR in a Part 25 airplane typically records 88 parameters, including those taken from accelerometers and instrumentation from several different areas of the flight surfaces. Morrison said Alakai’s FDR could be re-engineered for use in business aviation applications with only a relatively small increase in price, but the likely candidates for the product would be smaller business jets and turboprops that aren’t required to carry FDRs. (The equipment is required only in Part 121 and 135 aircraft configured with 10 or more seats, including crewmember seats.)

The Alakai FDR consists of an avionics power supply, processor, non-volatile memory, and analog and digital interfaces to the aircraft. The unit sells for less than $5,000 in its current form and would increase in price by a few thousand dollars if it were to include full Arinc 429 databus-interface capability. For another $300 per unit the Alakai FDR could be expanded to include a digital cockpit voice recorder, Morrison said.

Ballpark price for a full installation of an FDR in a Part 25 airplane ranges from about $30,000 to $50,000. Morrison said a version of Alakai’s FDR for a Part 23 business jet or turboprop, depending on the recorder’s configuration and the number ordered, might sell for as little as $6,000.

SATSAir is interested more in the “intelligent maintenance” functionality of the box for engine trend monitoring of its Cirrus fleet, Morrison said. The FAA requires Part 135 operators to have an engine trend monitoring program in place and the FDR, with a slightly different software load, can handle that task, he said. Although not required by the FARs, installation of an FDR in a commercial airplane like a SATSAir SR22 should also help to limit the liability exposure in case of an accident, which in turn could lead to lower insurance rates, said Morrison.

This is Alakai’s first product. Morrison spent 20 years as an engineer with Raytheon Defense and another five years working for Beechcraft under SATSAir founder Steve Hanvey, who at the time was serving as Raytheon Aircraft’s v-p of engineering. Morrison and Hanvey worked on a fly-by-light flight controls project in the late 1990s with NASA, performing the first flight of a Beechjet with an all-optical engine control system.