There is a tragic irony to the ongoing search for the vital black box of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Many of the military aircraft currently flying grid patterns over the vast ocean to the southwest of Australia posses a Canadian technology that would allow their black box data to be quickly recoverable should they ever crash.

Most aircraft in the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as many in some 50 militaries worldwide, carry a Deployable Flight Data Recorder, a Canadian-pioneered device no larger than a medium pizza box that is ejected from the tail of an aircraft upon impact with the ground or water.

Once deployed, the device transmits a message, often within 10 to15 minutes, to a GEOSAR or LEOSAR that currently make up the network of satellites that form part of the Montreal-based international Cospas-Sarsat Program. The message includes the country of origin, tail number and GPS location for the point of impact. That information is relayed from a ground station to the country of origin and the nearest mission control centre.

“Now the two most important mission control centres are working to together,” explained Blake Van Den Heuvel, director of business development for DRS Technologies. “It takes the search out of search and rescue. The fact that this floats means that it drifts, which is vital for search and rescue – the point of impact is not necessarily where the wreckage will be in 12 hours. [Y]ou have a point of impact, the floating black box, and the wreckage is likely between those two points.

Although similar devices are now manufactured by a handful of companies, including L-3, Honeywell and GE Aviation, DRS was highlighting the technology and its Canadian origin as part of its display at this week’s CANSEC tradeshow.

The device originates in the early 1960s with the National Research Council, Van Den Heuvel said, and is an example of a partnership between the public and private sectors to bring an innovation to market. “It is really a Canadian success story.”

It has evolved over the decades from a basic crash position locator – mandatory for operators, especially in the North – to a contained unit with tape recording capability, to a digital flight data recorder.

The 5th generation unit on display is now being upgraded to a 6th generation device as the company seeks to “close the loop with the commercial aviation market,” he said.

Following the crash of Air France 447 and the enormous cost and time required to locate the black box in the southern Pacific Ocean, the French BEA (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses) launched an international safety working group that brought together national safety boards, regulators, OEMs and suppliers. Among their recommendations to the International Civil Aviation Organization was a requirement for deployable recorders on all civil air transport.

“This isn’t a replacement of a black box,” said Van Den Heuvel, who equates the deployable and fixed data recorders to the complimentary protection of a seat belt and air bag in a car. Although ICAO has mandated changes for 2016, the requirement is still for fix voice and flight data recorders inside the aircraft. He said the organization is now studying whether a deployable recorder in the tail should also be required.

In addition, by 2018 Cospas-Sarsat is expected to complete deployment of a Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) system that “should enable virtually instantaneous transmission from a deployable flight recorder,” he said. “So you could have the vital black box data the day of the crash or within 24 hours. More importantly, that saves lives.

“This has the ability to transform what happens when an airplane has a tragic event in the middle of the ocean,” he added, noting that as more carriers opt for polar routes to save time and fuel, the need for such technology is vital.