Home Technology Boeing still uses floppy disks for many of its aircraft

Boeing still uses floppy disks for many of its aircraft

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In this age of fast internet, large optical drives and even bigger hard drives, it’s hard to image anything coming out on physical disk form, let alone even more than one disc. Well, prepare to have your mind blown, as it turns out that those massive Boeing’s 747-400 aircraft that many of you may have flown on in your global travels before the pandemic hit are still receiving critical updates through 3.5-inch floppy disks (as reported by The Register via The Verge). This comes as security researchers at Pen Test Partners were able to access a fleet of aircraft from British Airways after they retired them, given the plummeting state of air travel around the world.

As bizarre as that may sound, to their credit these aircraft were first introduced in 1988 when floppy drives were a big thing, but even then, it’s surprising that there wasn’t some form of upgrade during that time to convert these components towards more modern systems. I mean, who even makes floppy disks like this anymore? These disk drives are located in the cockpit, where they are used to load important navigation databases. It’s a database that has to be updated every 28 days by an engineer.

It gets even more bizarre though, because not only are these old planes still making use of seemingly archaic technology but reportedly many of the more modern Boeing 737s have been using floppy disks to load avionics software for years as well. The databases housed on these floppy discs are increasingly getting bigger though, according to a 2015 report from Aviation Today. Boeing’s latest 777 and 787 planes do at least use fibre networks, where all the avionics plug into a network and controlled by a pair of computers that run the flight-critical software.

Considering the issues Boeing has had with their planes of late and the importance of software in flight, the security of their software systems is becoming increasingly crucial and so these sort of cybersecurity examinations are needed to ensure the aircraft cannot be affected by vulnerabilities. One cybersecurity professor has already discovered a buffer overflow exploit onboard a British Airways flight last year.

The professor was able to use a USB mouse to input long strings of text into an in-flight chat app, crashing the entire in-flight entertainment system for his seat. Something that could be catastrophic if they had been able to find a way of dismantling the flight system too. Hopefully, all of these security assessments only serve to make the aircraft manufacturers’ security controls even tighter.

And now I’ve probably just crushed those dreams you had of jetting off on a long overseas vacation once the pandemic is finally over. Perhaps now you may never ever fly again.

Sorry, Darryn.

Editor’s note: Shrill screaming noises

Last Updated: June 26, 2021

3 Comments

  1. HvR

    August 13, 2020 at 13:04

    Well there is good reason for this, you can not update these critical systems without reevaluating the complete aircraft. Boeing learned this the hard way with the 737 MAX series (that uses the new flight electronics like the 787 and 777) that even if the smallest of shortcuts are taken can result in downed aircraft and death. Another pro for ye old floppy disc system is that it makes it impossible for manufacturers to nickle and dime DLC some optional flight systems; again if the MAX planes all came with all the optional system the crashes could have been avoided.

    As for the overflow buffer security issue found by the professor, there is no way he could have accessed any critical systems. IFE system that can be accessed by the passengers may in no way be connected to flight critical systems, not even on a power supply level.

    Reply

  2. Llama In The Rift

    August 13, 2020 at 13:13

    https://media0.giphy.com/media/13bQoiEeOqtmCvh93q/giphy.gif New Flight Simulator Experience, get your PC ready now.

    Reply

  3. HvR

    August 13, 2020 at 13:04

    Well there is good reason for this, you can not update these critical systems without reevaluating the complete aircraft. Boeing learned this the hard way with the 737 MAX series (that uses the new flight electronics like the 787 and 777) that even if the smallest of shortcuts are taken can result in downed aircraft and death. Another pro for ye old floppy disc system is that it makes it impossible for manufacturers to nickle and dime DLC some optional flight systems; again if the MAX planes all came with all the optional system the crashes could have been avoided.

    As for the overflow buffer security issue found by the professor, there is no way he could have accessed any critical systems. IFE system that can be accessed by the passengers may in no way be connected to flight critical systems, not even on a power supply level.

    Reply

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