If We Can Track Our Smartphones Within a Few Meters, How Can We Lose a 777 Jetliner? It’s Our Must-Read Non-TV Story of the Day

Mar 10, 2014  •  Post A Comment

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the South China Sea a few days ago with 239 people on board raises more than a few questions, not the least being: In this day and age, when we can track a tiny smartphone with some degree of precision, how the heck do we lose a full-size jetliner?

"A massive search and rescue effort involving 40 ships and 34 aircraft from nine different nations has yet to discover any sign of the missing aircraft," writes Sebastian Anthony in ExtremeTech. "For me, this is almost incomprehensible: Despite all of the awesome technology that mankind has developed, it’s still possible for a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people on board to vanish."

Anthony notes that searchers are relying mainly on the jet’s radar signature, "and even then, that last radar reading was so poor that the search area is thousands of square miles of open water. Surely, given the fact that we can track a damn smartphone anywhere on Earth down to a few meters, there’s a better way of keeping track of missing aircraft?"

The report adds: "In the words of Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, the fate of MH370 is ‘a mystery.’ The Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia en route to Beijing, was cruising normally at 35,000 feet … and then disappeared. There was no distress call. The weather was fine. The plane’s last known position, via radar, was just south of Vietnam in the South China Sea — which is where search efforts have been focused so far — but one theory suggests that the plane turned back just after the last radar ping, meaning the plane could be hundreds of miles away in the Strait of Malacca. In the absence of any other information, there is speculation that the plane was target of a terrorist attack."

The piece notes that one of the chief tools in studying what happens in an air disaster is, like radar, relatively old technology: the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), or "black box."

"Except for that last radar reading, we have absolutely no knowledge of the flight at all until we find that FDR," Anthony writes. "We have no clue what was said in the cockpit by the captain and first officer — though, seemingly, if something did go wrong, they didn’t even have time to send a mayday message. We have no clue if the plane hit a patch of bad weather, or whether it was hijacked. It really will be one huge mystery until the FDR is recovered — and there’s a good chance, if MH370 did crash into the ocean, that the FDR will never be recovered. In the case of Air France flight AF447, which disappeared off the coast of Brazil, it took two months to locate the wreckage, more than a year to find the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), and the FDR was never found."

Anthony adds: "Think about this for a moment. We live in a day and age where GPS (and other radio triangulation methods) can track your smartphone to within a few meters, almost anywhere on Earth. With dedicated, land-based tracking networks, vehicles and devices can be tracked to within a few centimeters. Even in the absence of GPS or radio tracking, inertial guidance (dead reckoning) has been accurate enough since the ’60s to accurately land a nuclear ICBM on the other side of the planet, or put the Apollo mission into space.

"And then there’s connectivity. On land, there are networks (both commercial and governmental) that provide data connectivity almost everywhere. Over water is definitely harder, but satellites do provide pretty good coverage — and yes, that particular region of Asia is very well covered by communications satellites. Finally, even if an aircraft is out of satellite/radio coverage, there is absolutely nothing preventing the airplane from transmitting a really juicy low-frequency radio signal that could be picked up thousands of miles away. This is how they communicate with air traffic control, after all."

The piece asks: "Why, then, does a plane like the MH370 keep all of its secrets locked up in a black box? Why don’t planes constantly transmit all of their black box data, so that we know their exact location, bearing, altitude, and other important factors, at all times?"

Anthony adds: "The short answer is, there’s no good reason."

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