Boeing's 747-400 aircraft, first introduced in 1988, continue to receive critical software updates via 3.5-inch diskettes. The registry reports that Pen Test Partners security researchers recently gained access to a British Airways 747 after the airline decided to shut down its fleet after a drop in travel during the coronavirus pandemic. The team was able to inspect the entire avionics bay under the passenger deck with its data center-like racks made of modular black boxes that perform various functions for the aircraft.
Pen Test Partners discovered a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive in the cockpit, which is used to load important navigation databases. It is a database that needs to be updated every 28 days and a technician visits it every month for the latest updates.
While it sounds surprising that 3.5-inch floppy disks are still used on airplanes today, many of Boeing's 737s have also been using floppy disks to load avionics software for years. According to a 2015 report by Aviation Today, the databases contained on these disks are growing steadily. Some airlines have moved away from using floppy disks, but others are busy with engineers visiting every month to load eight floppy disks with updates for airports, flight paths, runways, and more.
The 10-minute video tour of the 747 (above) offers a fascinating glimpse into the parts of the aircraft that you never get to see, especially on a decades-old airliner. The tour is part of this year's virtual Def Con conference, the largest hacker conference in the USA. As modern aircraft rely on increasingly sophisticated technology, security researchers are increasingly interested in how aircraft prevent passengers from disrupting flights.
Boeing's 747 floppy disk drive.
Aviation and Space Village (YouTube)
Safety is especially important when it comes to in-flight entertainment systems. A cybersecurity professor discovered a buffer overflow on a British Airways flight last year. Using a USB mouse, the professor could enter long text strings into a chat app during the flight and crash the entire in-flight entertainment system for his seat. Security researchers are still looking for vulnerabilities that would allow them to communicate with flight systems from publicly accessible parts of aircraft.
A focus on safety is even more important with the latest aircraft. Modern aircraft such as Boeing's 777X and 787 use fiber optic networks where all avionics are connected to this network and controlled by two computers running flight critical software. It's more of a traditional network like you'd find in an office building, and some of the latest planes even get software updates wirelessly. However, the software that powers modern aircraft is not always reliable. Boeing only just resumed production of its troubled 737 Max aircraft after software issues resulted in two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 passengers and crew.
While modern technology is available, it has not prevented floppy disks from persisting in other industries. The US Department of Defense stopped using only 8-inch floppy disks to coordinate the country's nuclear forces in October, and the International Space Station is full of floppy disks.