NTSB Lab Sees Increase in Recorders

The Vehicle Recorder Division received 391 recordings in 2010, about twice as many as the division received in 2005, and in doing so, continued the trend of yearly increases the laboratory has seen over recent years. These increases are primarily due to the proliferation of devices that record information, particularly a wide variety of hand-held devices (GPS units, cell phones, etc.) and advanced avionics.

"The majority of recordings came from aviation accidents, although the division's work in 2010 included several major investigations in other modes, such as the WMATA Fort Totten investigation and the marine Eagle Otome and Philadelphia DUKW accidents," said Sarah McComb,Chief of the Vehicle Recorder Division. "Also, in 2010, Venezuela, Peru, Germany, Mexico, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Colombia, Norway, Suriname, Finland, and Dominican Republic brought or sent recording devices to us for assistance."

From 2005 to 2009, about 28% (approximately 44) of the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders the Safety Board received each year were from foreign investigations. In the last few years, the division has also begun assisting other countries with recovery of data from other items such as avionics displays and engine monitors.

Cell phones and cell phone records have been a particular challenge for the division in the last few years. Division engineers have become adept at recovering stored information from damaged devices and also leverage other federal agencies' capabilities when necessary. The division has also helped with the review of cell phone records for a few investigations. Cell phones and cell phone records might be crucial to an investigation by providing information such as timing of events, usage information, human performance metrics (such as 72-hour history data), and, in some cases, location information.

The NTSB also assists other U.S. government agencies in gathering information from recorders. "One unique case the division worked on in 2010 was a Chemical Safety Board investigation of a power plant explosion," McComb said. "The CSB brought a damaged gas monitor to the laboratory where Jim Cash and Mike Bauer were able to perform a chip level recovery and decode the recorded data."

In 2010, two new hires, Ben Xu and Bill Tuccio, brought the number of Vehicle Recorder Division engineers to 10. The overall recorder staff is now back up to the level it was approximately 6 years ago.

"Given the ongoing changes in technology, the laboratory's workload is expected to continue to increase and NTSB's Vehicle Recorder Division will continue to maximize staff and laboratory resources to meet the challenges ahead," said McComb.