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Boeing 747s Still Use Floppy Disks to Get Critical Software Updates

Illustration for article titled Boeing 747s Still Use Floppy Disks to Get Critical Software Updates
Screenshot: Aerospace Village

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.

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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.

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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.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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Fun fact. USB “thumb drives” are the least secure things in the world. They typically consist of a flash memory chip and a controller chip. The controller chip is a small computer that can be programmed to lie. About anything. It can lie about the capacity. It can lie about the data that is on the flash chip. It can hide a computer virus if it detects it’s being asked for a list of files. It can also lie about what it is - it can tell the OS it is also a keyboard and a mouse and open a console window and do anything it wants to the computer.

In very secure locations the USB ports are filled with epoxy. Sure it keeps data from being siphoned out. But it also prevents any attack software from being loaded in.

The worst a floppy disk can do is for someone to load bad data or a program onto it, but the computer the drive is built in to can find that out before loading the data or the program. One can scan the entire disk surface with the floppy drive hardware that is part of the computer. Obviously there is a gray area if there is a floppy drive on a USB port as one is back to the first area, but even these floppy drives aren’t that.

If one wants to be as reliable as possible and the number of floppy disks is manageable, floppy disks are not safely replaced with far less secure USB drives or Internet connections or more delicate Compact Disk.