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

Boeing’s 747-400 aircraft, first introduced in 1988, still receives critical software updates via 3.5-inch floppy disks. The Register reports that security researchers at Pen Test Partners recently gained access to a British Airways 747 after the airline decided to retire its fleet following a drop in travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

The team was able to inspect the entire avionics bay below the passenger deck, with its modular black box racks, similar to data centers, that perform different functions for the aircraft.

Pen Test Partners discovered a 3.5-inch floppy drive in the cockpit, which is used to load important navigation databases. It is a database that must be updated every 28 days and an engineer visits it every month with the latest updates.

While it may seem surprising that 3.5-inch floppy disks are still used in airplanes today, many of Boeing’s 737s have also been using floppy disks to load avionics software for years.

The databases housed on these floppy disks are getting larger, according to a 2015 report by Aviation Today. Some airlines have shied away from using floppy disks, but others are stuck with engineers visiting each month to sit down and load eight floppy disks with updates to airports, flight routes, runways, and more.

The 747’s 10-minute video tour (above) is a fascinating glimpse into the parts of the plane you never get to see, particularly on a decades-old airliner.

The tour is part of this year’s Def Con virtual conference, America’s largest hacker conference. As modern airplanes depend on increasingly sophisticated technology, safety researchers are increasingly interested in how airplanes prevent passengers from interfering with flights.

Safety is particularly relevant when it comes to inflight entertainment systems. A cybersecurity professor discovered a buffer overflow exploit aboard a British Airways flight last year.

The professor was able to use a USB mouse to enter long strings of text into an in-flight chat application, locking the entire in-flight entertainment system to his seat.

Security researchers are still looking for vulnerabilities that allow them to communicate with flight systems from publicly accessible aircraft parts.

The focus on safety is even more important in the latest aircraft. Modern airplanes like Boeing’s 777X and 787 use fiber networks, where all avionics are connected to this network and controlled by a pair of computers running critical flight software.

It’s more of a traditional network like you’d find inside an office building, and some of the latest airliners even get software updates over the air.

However, the software that powers modern aircraft is not always reliable. Boeing has just resumed production of its troublesome 737 Max aircraft after software failures led to two fatal accidents that killed a total of 346 passengers and crew members.

Even though modern technology is available, it has not stopped floppy disks from persisting in other industries. The US Department of Defense only ended the use of 8-inch floppy disks to coordinate the country’s nuclear forces in October, and the International Space Station is full of floppy disks.

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