July 20, 2017 admin

FDM Raw Data: Why Binary Data and How to Decode It?

Authors: Lukas Hahndorf & Javensius Sembiring (TU Munich)

SafeClouds.eu gathers 16 partners for research collaboration with a wide and diverse group of users, including air navigation services providers, airlines and safety agencies. SafeClouds.eu encourages active involvement from users, as the project aims to apply data science techniques to improve aviation safety. SafeClouds.eu is unique as it involves data combination and collaboration from ANSPs, airlines and authorities in order to improve our knowledge on safety risks, all while maintaining the confidentiality of the data. This safety analysis requires comprehensive understanding of various data sources, and supports the use case analysis as selected by the users.
The basics of the FDM data, as one of the main data sources for the project, is outlined in this post.

Onboard Recording

A large amount of data is recorded during civil aircraft flights. Apart from the “Flight Data Recorder” that is mainly used for accident investigations (widely known as “Black Box”), there are also recorders for regular operations. These recorders are often called “Quick Access Recorders” (QAR). QAR data is analysed in terms of safety, efficiency and other aspects in Flight Data Monitoring activities for airlines and is furthermore an integral part of the research project SafeClouds.eu.
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Figure 1: Example for a QAR (Source: https://www.safran-electronics-defense.com/aerospace/commercial-aircraft/information-system/aircraft-condition-monitoring-system-acms)

Aircraft are very complex systems with a large number of sensors constantly recording measurements. Important parameters regarding the aircraft state, including position, altitude, speed, engine characteristics and many others are recorded by the QAR. Depending on the aircraft type and airline, the number of recorded parameters can reach several thousand.

As a digital device, the recording uses binary format. In other words, if we look at the QAR data we would only see a bit stream, i.e. a sequence of 0 and 1. In order to use the data and investigate, for example the aircraft position, two additional components are necessary. First, logic is needed to determine how the data is written into the bit stream. This is given by an ARINC standard and two versions are presently used: ARINC 717 standard is used for older aircraft types and the ARINC 767 is used for newer aircraft types. Second, a detailed description of the location of any considered parameter in the bit stream is needed. This is given by a “dataframe” which is a text document of up to several hundreds of pages.

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Figure 2: Overview (Source: “Flight Data Decoding used for Generating En-Route Information based on Binary Quick Access Recorder Data”, Master thesis, Nils Mohr, Technical University of Munich)

File Formats

One of the advantages of data stored in binary format is storage efficiency. The size of the same flight data file stored in binary format compared to being stored in engineering values (e.g. in a CSV file) might be ten times smaller. Considering the research project SafeClouds.eu or the shared framework for flight data such as ASIAS of the FAA, FDX of IATA or Data4Safety of EASA which collects millions of flight data, an efficient storage is obviously needed.

However, storing flight data in binary format then requires an efficient way to transfer the binary data into engineering values. Considering the bit stream logic, two parts are necessary. First, the bit stream logic (provided by the ARINC standard) needs to be represented in a decoding algorithm. Second, the dataframe information, i.e. which parameter can be found in which part of the bit stream needs to be accessible to the decoding algorithm.


Recorded parameters have different characteristics. For example, they can be numeric, alphanumeric or characters. Depending on these characteristics, different decoding rules have to be applied. As an example, a temperature recording of 36.5 °C with a linear conversion rule is considered in the following figure.

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Figure 3: Simple Decoding Example (Source: “Flight Data Decoding used for Generating En-Route Information based on Binary Quick Access Recorder Data”, Master thesis, Nils Mohr, Technical University of Munich)

Starting from the bit stream, just specific binary values are relevant for the temperature recording. As mentioned above, this information can be found in the dataframe. The combination of all bits leads to a number in the binary system, which can then be transferred into the associated decimal value. Applying the conversion rule for linear parameters gives the result 36.5. Information about these rules as well as the unit, in this case degree Celsius, can be found in the dataframe.


The data that is recorded by civilian aircraft in their daily operation contains valuable information that can be used for airline safety analyses. Due to the nature of the recording, the data is generated in binary format. To make the data accessible and readable for the analysts, a decoding algorithm is applied. For the development of this algorithm, information about the recording logic and for all the considered parameters must be available.

Author: Lukas Höhndorf (TU Munich)

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