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How technology helped and hindered the hunt for Flight MH370

Analysis Changes needed in the way aviation uses technology
Mon Mar 24 2014, 17:41

AS THE WORLD comes to terms with the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, it is inevitable that in the days and weeks that follow, the role of technology will be assessed.

Modern technology has played both hero and villain in the desperate search, and as the aviation industry assesses what went wrong, the Malaysian authorities question its handling of the incident, and the world asks how a passenger plane could become lost for two weeks.

The final confirmation that the plane had gone down in the Southern Indian Ocean came from British satellite imaging company Inmarsat, which used a previously untried technique, mining big data from aircraft around the world and comparing it to historical flight paths. By studying the Doppler Effect of the signals, it was confirmed that MH370 had definitely turned south, where they were so far from landfall that a safe landing would have been impossible.

But given that Ronald Reagan passed legislation gifting GPS to the world after a plane crash in 1983 killed 269 people, specifically to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, surely it would have been easy to find the plane wreckage?

The truth is more complicated. Although GPS is available, many countries have not adopted it, which seems crazy given that many people aboard must have been carrying GPS tracking devices.

What is even stranger is that air traffic controllers continue to use radar equipment, a technology dating back nearly 75 years, and even military radar suffers from variable results over distances as it is vulnerable to interference from all the other signals in the radio frequency spectrum.

The logistics of changing from radar to GPS would not only be extremely costly for countries that often can ill afford to maintain runways, but also requires a universal, coordinated standard to ensure the safety of planes - perhaps even requiring a day when all planes are grounded to allow all systems to be switched over and tested.

On the planes themselves, the fact that the communications systems could be powered down so easily will be called into question, as we continue to wonder why they were shut off, while the continuing debate over the use of electrical equipment onboard will raise the issue that if the passengers' smartphones had been switched on, perhaps telemetry could have been picked up their signals sooner. It would, however not have come from a cellular service - the plane was far out at sea, away from the range of mobile masts.

The fabled black box recorders, the theoretically indestructible devices that can help answer many of the questions surrounding the fate of the plane, might never be found. GPS and radar are useless in waters that are, in places, over four miles deep, and the homing beacons on the black boxes have only around 12 weeks of battery power.

There has been positive use of technology, however. The use of crowdsourcing has been highlighted once again as over three million people around the world scoured satellite images from Digital Globe, using their computers in the hope of spotting debris and speeding up the search.

But perhaps the biggest irony comes with the news that, as the Malaysian government confirmed the news that everyone had feared, the families that had clamoured for news of their loved ones and remained incredulous about how the flight could simply disappear were finally told of the plane's fate through a humble text message.

It read, "Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia's Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggest the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean."

We will probably never know what really happened to flight MH370. However there undoubtedly will be calls for a sea change in the way aviation uses technology to ensure that the 239 souls that were lost did not die in vain. µ


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