It’s been approximately 12 million years since most of us last used a floppy disk, but apparently, the antiquated tech still plays a critical role in delivering software updates to Boeing’s 747-400 planes.
The discovery comes courtesy of cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners and was initially spotted by The Register. As part of this year’s virtual DEF CON hacker conference, Pen Test Partners showed off a video walkthrough of a British Airways 747 after the airline decided to retire its entire fleet last month due to the global pandemic. The roughly 10-minute tour is a neat glimpse into the plane’s rarely seen avionics bay and cockpit—where Pen Test Partners discovered a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive.
Apparently, the drive is the 747's navigation database loader and needs to be updated every 28 days. As in, some poor engineer has to visit each 747-400 and manually deliver updates... or the planes wouldn’t be able to fly. And it’s not just the 747s. Per the Verge, the majority of Boeing 737s are also updated via floppy disks. Operators these planes, according to a 2014 Aviation Today report, have binders full of floppy disks for “all the avionics that they may need.” That includes important information like airports, runways, flight paths, and waypoints used by pilots to make flight plans. It also sounds horribly inefficient, as while some systems may only require one floppy disk of updates, others could require as many as eight floppy disks.
You’d think that in the six years since 2014, someone would have figured out a way to bring the aviation industry into the 21st century. Surprisingly, an Aviation Today report notes that even in 2020, a “significant number of airlines are still using floppy disks for software parts loading.”
To be fair, the 747-400 is an old plane that first took flight 32 years ago in 1988, when floppies reigned supreme. These days, however, floppy disks are mostly relegated to maintaining commercial and industrial legacy systems—things that were built to last but failed to future-proof themselves or aren’t easily replaced. For example, it wasn’t until last year that the U.S. military stopped using 8-inch floppy disks to help manage its nuclear weapons system. In 2018, floppy disk sales actually went up when small indie music labels turned to the 3.5-inch floppy at the height of the vaporwave trend.
But getting back to planes, modern isn’t always better. The Boeing 737 Max, for instance, featured advanced software systems, but glitches resulted in two horrific crashes that killed 346 passengers, leading Boeing to halt production on the line at the end of last year. Yet another software issue with the 737 Max was found in February, and after more than a year of the planes being grounded, Boeing just restarted production in May. Conversely, while the Boeing 747-400 is no longer in production, only two have ever been involved in passenger deaths over 8.42 million flights, per Airsafe.com.