Teardown: D50761 Aircraft Quick Access Recorder

Everyone’s heard of the “black box”. Officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), it’s a mandatory piece of equipment on commercial aircraft. The FDR is instrumental in investigating incidents or crashes, and is specifically designed to survive should the aircraft be destroyed. The search for the so-called “black box” often dominates the news cycle after the loss of a commercial aircraft; as finding it will almost certainly be necessary to determine the true cause of the accident. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Quick Access Recorder (QAR).

While it’s the best known, the FDR is not the only type of recording device used in aviation. The QAR could be thought of as the non-emergency alternative to the FDR. While retrieving data from the FDR usually means the worst has happened, the QAR is specifically designed to facilitate easy and regular access to flight data for research and maintenance purposes. Its data is stored on removable media and since the QAR is not expected to survive the loss of the aircraft it isn’t physically hardened. In fact, modern aircraft often use consumer-grade technology such as Compact Flash cards and USB flash drives as storage media in their QAR.

Through the wonders of eBay, I recently acquired a vintage Penny & Giles D50761 Quick Access Recorder. This was pulled out of an aircraft which had been in service with the now defunct airline, Air Toulouse International. Let’s crack open this relatively obscure piece of equipment and see just what goes into the hardware that airlines trust to help ensure their multi-million dollar aircraft are operating in peak condition.

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Trials and Tribulations in Sending Data with Wires

When working on a project that needs to send data from place to place the distances involved often dictate the method of sending. Are the two chunks of the system on one PCB? A “vanilla” communication protocol like i2c or SPI is probably fine unless there are more exotic requirements. Are the two components mechanically separated? Do they move around? Do they need to be far apart? Reconfigurable? A trendy answer might be to add Bluetooth Low Energy or WiFi to everything but that obviously comes with a set of costs and drawbacks. What about just using really long wires? [Pat] needed to connect six boards to a central node over distances of several feet and learned a few tricks in the process.

When connecting two nodes together via wires it seems like choosing a protocol and plugging everything in is all that’s required, right? [Pat]’s first set of learnings is about the problems that happen when you try that. It turns out that “long wire” is another way to spell “antenna”, and if you happen to be unlucky enough to catch a passing wave that particular property can fry pins on your micro.

Plus it turns out wires have resistance proportional to their length (who would have though!) so those sharp square clock signals turn into gently rolling hills. Even getting to the point where those rolling hills travel between the two devices requires driving drive the lines harder than the average micro can manage. The solution? A differential pair. Check out the post to learn about one way to do that.

It looks like [Pat] needed to add USB to this witches brew and ended up choosing a pretty strange part from FTDI, the Vinculum II. The VNC2 seemed like a great choice with a rich set of peripherals and two configurable USB Host/Peripheral controllers but it turned out to be a nightmare for development. [Pat]’s writeup of the related troubles is a fun and familiar read. The workaround for an incredible set of undocumented bad behaviors in the SPI peripheral was to add a thick layer of reliability related messaging on top of the physical communication layer. Check out the state machine for a taste, and the original post for a detailed description.