Boeing 747-400s still use the 3.5″ 1.44 MB floppy disks to update their critical navigational charts
In this day and age of SSDs and microSD cards, Boeing is still using Floppy Disks to update its Boeing 747-400 navigational charts. The most prestigious large, long-range wide-body airplane from Boeing was first launched on February 9, 1969, and is still using a floppy disk reader to update its critical navigation systems.
In a DEF CON video interview, PTP’s Alex Lomas gave the audience an inside look of 747-400, its avionics bay, and the flight deck. “Aircraft themselves are really expensive beasts, you know. Even if you had all the will in the world, airlines and manufacturers won’t just let you pentest an aircraft because [they]don’t know what state you’re going to leave it in,” Lomas explains to viewers.
In the video above, at 7.49 onwards, Lomas shows the navigation database loader which still uses the now-defunct 3.5″ floppy drives to update. “This database has to be updated every 28 days, so you can see how much of a chore this has to be for an engineer to visit,” Lomas says in the video.
To give a history of 3.5″ floppy disks, they were used worldwide in the 1990s. They were first introduced in 1983 (single side) and the double side/double density ones were introduced in 1984. The most common 3.5″ floppy disk came in a double-sided, high-density (HD) 1.44 MB disk drive version and was first introduced in 1986.
Though floppy disk drives and disks died a natural death they are still available on Amazon. You can get a pretty sleek-looking 3.5-inch floppy drive that plugs into your USB port for under $15 right now, and it even includes Prime shipping. Though I am not sure it would work with a Windows 10 PC/laptop. You can get a set of 10 Imation brand 3.5″ 1.44 MB capacity floppy disks for $18.50 here.
Coming back to our story, it seems that Boeing has continued using the name updating technique, they used in the 1990s to keep their navigational systems from being hacked. In a way, it makes sense because obsolete technology is hard to acquire, and using a floppy disk to write an exploit or implant malware to cause accidents in a Boeing would be near to impossible. However, Lomas and Pen Test Partners used a discarded Boeing for the ICARS system teardown. It is not known if Boeing still uses the same technique in its current fleet of 737, 737 Max, 747-8, 767, 777, etc.
You can read about Pen Test Partner’s takedown of the Boeing ICARS system on their website here.