A flight data recorder (FDR; also ADR, for accident data recorder) is an electronic device employed to record instructions sent to any electronic systems on an aircraft.
The data recorded by the FDR are used for accident and incident investigation. Due to their importance in investigating accidents, these ICAO-regulated devices are carefully engineered and constructed to withstand the force of a high speed impact and the heat of an intense fire. Contrary to the popular term "black box", the exterior of the FDR is coated with heat-resistant bright orange paint for high visibility in wreckage, and the unit is usually mounted in the aircraft's tail section, where it is more likely to survive a severe crash. Following an accident, the recovery of the FDR is usually a high priority for the investigating body, as analysis of the recorded parameters can often detect and identify causes or contributing factors.
Modern day FDRs receive inputs via specific data frames from the Flight Data Acquisition Units (FDAU). They record significant flight parameters, including the control and actuator positions, engine information and time of day. There are 88 parameters required as a minimum under current US federal regulations (only 29 were required until 2002), but some systems monitor many more variables. Generally each parameter is recorded a few times per second, though some units store "bursts" of data at a much higher frequency if the data begin to change quickly. Most FDRs record approximately 17–25 hours of data in a continuous loop. It is required by regulations that an FDR verification check (readout) is performed annually in order to verify that all mandatory parameters are recorded.
Modern FDRs are typically double wrapped in strong corrosion-resistant stainless steel or titanium, with high-temperature insulation inside. Modern FDRs are accompanied by an underwater locator beacon that emits an ultrasonic "ping" to aid in detection when submerged. These beacons operate for up to 30 days and are able to operate while immersed to a depth of up to 6,000 meters (20,000 ft).
A cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is a flight recorder used to record the audio environment in the flight deck of an aircraft for the purpose of investigation of accidents and incidents. This is typically achieved by recording the signals of the microphones and earphones of the pilots' headsets and of an area microphone in the roof of the cockpit. The current applicable FAA TSO is C123b titled Cockpit Voice Recorder Equipment.
Where an aircraft is required to carry a CVR and uses digital communications the CVR is required to record such communications with air traffic control unless this is recorded elsewhere. As of 2008 it is an FAA requirement that the recording duration is a minimum of two hours.
A standard CVR is capable of recording 4 channels of audio data for a period of 2 hours. The original requirement was for a CVR to record for 30 minutes, but this has been found to be insufficient in many cases, significant parts of the audio data needed for a subsequent investigation having occurred more than 30 minutes before the end of the recording.
The earliest CVRs used analog wire recording, later replaced by analog magnetic tape. Some of the tape units used two reels, with the tape automatically reversing at each end. The original was the ARL Flight Memory Unit produced in 1957 by Australian David Warren and an instrument maker named Tych Mirfield.
Other units used a single reel, with the tape spliced into a continuous loop, much as in an 8-track cartridge. The tape would circulate and old audio information would be overwritten every 30 minutes. Recovery of sound from magnetic tape often proves difficult if the recorder is recovered from water and its housing has been breached. Thus, the latest designs employ solid-state memory and use digital recording techniques, making them much more resistant to shock, vibration and moisture. With the reduced power requirements of solid-state recorders, it is now practical to incorporate a battery in the units, so that recording can continue until flight termination, even if the aircraft electrical system fails.
Like the FDR, the CVR is typically mounted in the rear of the airplane fuselage to maximize the likelihood of its survival in a crash.
With the advent of digital recorders, the FDR and CVR can be manufactured in one fireproof, shock proof, and waterproof container as a combined digital Cockpit Voice and Data Recorder (CVDR). Currently, CVDRs are manufactured by L-3 Communications, as well as by other manufacturers.
Solid state recorders became commercially practical in 1990, having the advantage of not requiring scheduled maintenance and making the data easier to retrieve. This was extended to the two-hour voice recording in 1995.