Boeing 747s still use 3.5-inch floppy disks for critical software updates

midian182

Posts: 6,021   +50
Staff member
Why it matters: Remember 3.5-inch floppy disks? They might be pretty much obsolete in the world of home computing, but they're still in use within certain industries, including aviation. The Boeing 747-400 planes, for example, use the antiquated disks to receive critical software updates.

As reported by The Register, the discovery was made by cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners (PTP), which was showing off the inner workings of a British Airways 747 that the airline retired recently due to falling passenger numbers during the pandemic.

Jumping to around the 7:45 mark in the video, the team reveals the plane's navigation loader—a 3.5-inch drive that has to be updated every 28 days. That means manual updates from engineers who visit the planes each month with disk-filled binders.

According to Aviation Today), it's not just Boeing 747s that use floppy disks—a "significant number of airlines are still using floppy disks for software parts loading." Many Boeing 737s have been using them to load avionics software for years, and with the databases getting larger, some engineers are loading updates spanning up to eight floppies. These include vital information on airports, runways, flight paths, waypoints, and more.

Elsewhere, PTP's Alex Lomas addresses the long-running claim that it's possible to hack an in-flight entertainment system and take control of a plane. "Where we've gone deliberately looking, we've not found, at this point, any two-way communication between passenger domain systems like the IFE and the control domain. There is the DMZ of the information services domain that sits between the two; to jump between two layers of segregation would be tricky in my view."

While a cybersecurity professor discovered a buffer overflow exploit on a British Airways flight's entertainment system last year, there's still no proof that passengers can access flight systems from their seats.

Modern planes use more advanced technology than floppies, such as fiber networks and over-the-air updates, but new tech doesn't always mean the planes are safer. Software issues caused two 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people. The planes were grounded, and Boeing resumed production of the aircraft in May.

Floppy disks are still used in other industries—the International Space Station is packed with floppy drives, and US Defense Department only dropped them from its nuclear weapons systems last year.

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Neatfeatguy

Posts: 60   +60
"some engineers are loading updates spanning up to eight floppies"

Standard 3.5" disks only hold 1.44MB. Wonder if it's standard disks they're using.....if so, 8 disks is about 12MB of data. Must be awful to have to swap out up to 8 disks....I don't think we pay these engineers enough for all this extra work they have to do.
 

Vulcanproject

Posts: 1,210   +1,985
Same as everything. If your life depends on it, better to know it has been proven to work perfectly the past 40 years than a cutting edge tech with potentially unknown fatal flaws lurking.

NASA was still using 8086 processors in Shuttle diagnostic systems up til retirement.
 

TheBigT42

Posts: 438   +343
"some engineers are loading updates spanning up to eight floppies"

Standard 3.5" disks only hold 1.44MB. Wonder if it's standard disks they're using.....if so, 8 disks is about 12MB of data. Must be awful to have to swap out up to 8 disks....I don't think we pay these engineers enough for all this extra work they have to do.
Back in the day I installed Win95 from floppy a few times...talk about a PIA

Edit: 13 Floppies
 
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mbrowne5061

Posts: 1,605   +906
"some engineers are loading updates spanning up to eight floppies"

Standard 3.5" disks only hold 1.44MB. Wonder if it's standard disks they're using.....if so, 8 disks is about 12MB of data. Must be awful to have to swap out up to 8 disks....I don't think we pay these engineers enough for all this extra work they have to do.
Its not the marking of the chalk on the motor that is worth so much, it is knowing where to chalk marks themselves.

Loading data from 8 floppies ain't tricky, not until something goes wrong. Then you need the engineer there to figure out what broke and how to fix it.
 

Raytrace3D

Posts: 191   +180
I remember loading Return to Zork from a bunch of floppies, Flight Simulator from 14 floppies and Windows 98 from even more. It's what we did back then... As long as it worked (no corrupted disks), it wasn't that bad.
 

gamerk2

Posts: 425   +297
Same as everything. If your life depends on it, better to know it has been proven to work perfectly the past 40 years than a cutting edge tech with potentially unknown fatal flaws lurking.

NASA was still using 8086 processors in Shuttle diagnostic systems up til retirement.
I'm still supporting a 286 based system. Development is done on a Windows for Workgroups 3.11 PC.

It basically comes down to companies not willing to spend the money to replace tech that is working.
 

Mr WW

Posts: 31   +4
Much safer than today's "connected" world - from the next-door neighborhood "ordinary" kid direct to the flight's computer system.
Exactly what I was going to write.

Moreover what causes flaws nowadays is blindly using a framework, nuget package, library,... or whatever precoded functionality to start with the development. All pushed by budget and deadlines.
Development goes faster but you don't know what you all have in you development build...

In the early years, where bytes counted, every word, 2 bytes ;-), of coded text was carefully chosen and was there for a purpose...
I'm not saying unhackable but a least knowable.... and managable.
 

kmo911

Posts: 234   +27
Ps im also using win 3.11 and using it. so no danger there. to get win 95 98 se I use floppy disks made for installing from floppy 3.5". p60 mhz 128 vram gpu 128 and a nice sb 128 sound card. so no im not crazy . but im not using it on internet. tha would be cruel. no support for ie 5-9 netscape. and the speed on pc are nothing to clap for eather. but nørd are nørds and like running pc games in real win 3.1 11 to win 98 se. no support for win ME doh.
stay cool change to zip drive cd rw dvd bdxl. have you tryed getting big updates under over 100 gb you know it would taking ages to get 93.1 gb ont a slow ide drive. I would disconnect ide drive install ide ssd with 133 mb speed. then install updates and not from floppy drives 5.25 3.5 ever. an no you cant run crysis on a low pc.
 

Vulcanproject

Posts: 1,210   +1,985
I'm still supporting a 286 based system. Development is done on a Windows for Workgroups 3.11 PC.

It basically comes down to companies not willing to spend the money to replace tech that is working.
In non critical applications I'm sure it is mostly about the money. But on critical applications older is considered better. Everything there is to be known about an architecture is known. The smallest hardware bug has been found, catalogued and understood. No nasty surprises.

Even now satellites and rovers are launching with several generation old processors because they are known inside and out and have proven space worthy.

The classic example is the RAD750 CPU which is used in many high profile missions. Perseverance launched with one on board just two weeks ago. $2Bn mission. It's an old radiation hardened PowerPC from the turn of the century......

Reliability wins.
 
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gamerk2

Posts: 425   +297
In non critical applications I'm sure it is mostly about the money. But on critical applications older is considered better. Everything there is to be known about an architecture is known. The smallest hardware bug has been found, catalogued and understood. No nasty surprises.

Even now satellites and rovers are launching with several generation old processors because they are known inside and out and have proven space worthy.

The classic example is the RAD750 CPU which is used in many high profile missions. Perseverance launched with one on board just two weeks ago. $2Bn mission. It's an old radiation hardened PowerPC from the turn of the century......

Reliability wins.
7xx PPCs are still very widely used, although most stuff I've worked on recently have moved on to ARM instead.
 

scavengerspc

Posts: 529   +368
TechSpot Elite
In non critical applications I'm sure it is mostly about the money. But on critical applications older is considered better. Everything there is to be known about an architecture is known. The smallest hardware bug has been found, catalogued and understood. No nasty surprises.

Even now satellites and rovers are launching with several generation old processors because they are known inside and out and have proven space worthy.

The classic example is the RAD750 CPU which is used in many high profile missions. Perseverance launched with one on board just two weeks ago. $2Bn mission. It's an old radiation hardened PowerPC from the turn of the century......

Reliability wins.
I knew absolutely nothing about this but thanks for posting it. Stuff like this interests me big time. I already read up on it some but if you know more good sources please post them or PM me. Love stuff like this.
 

OortCloud

Posts: 418   +264
Why not just upgrade them with a Gotek drive? They could then use one USB stick with all the floppy disk images on.
 

neeyik

Posts: 1,306   +1,385
Staff member
The classic example is the RAD750 CPU which is used in many high profile missions. Perseverance launched with one on board just two weeks ago. $2Bn mission. It's an old radiation hardened PowerPC from the turn of the century.
Older processors, built on large process nodes, are much easier to radiation harden than modern ones. It'll be many more decades before we see a radiation hardened Core i9 :)

Wikipedia/Wayback Machine has a nice pdf on the RAD750:

 

Vulcanproject

Posts: 1,210   +1,985
Older processors, built on large process nodes, are much easier to radiation harden than modern ones. It'll be many more decades before we see a radiation hardened Core i9 :)

Wikipedia/Wayback Machine has a nice pdf on the RAD750:

Yeah, at this point the transistors are so small they are going to be more prone to flipped bits and the like. They would need heavy duty shielding.
 

neeyik

Posts: 1,306   +1,385
Staff member
Yeah, at this point the transistors are so small they are going to be more prone to flipped bits and the like. They would need heavy duty shielding.
Indeed. Modern CPUs have so many layers now, especially metal ones, that making them more insulating or resilient to lattice dislocation caused by bremsstrahlung issues is a gargantuan task. Not sure it's even possible right now.