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MH370 saga reveals gaps in technology

March 28, 2014, New York, N.Y. - The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has presented two tales of modern technology.


March 31, 2014
By The Associated Press

The limitations of tracking and communications devices allowed the
plane to vanish from sight for nearly three weeks.

 

But satellites'
advanced capabilities have provided hope that the mystery won't go
unsolved.

 

In this day and age of constant
connection, the public has been surprised to learn that radar and
satellites aren't actually all-seeing, cellphone locations aren't always
traceable and key data about the plane is only recorded, not
transmitted in real time to the ground. And onboard tracking systems can
be disabled manually — one theory holds that someone in the cockpit
intentionally diverted the plane and disguised their actions.

 

"Technology can track a flight, but
assuming malice was involved, it wouldn't change the outcome of this
disaster. Only better human intelligence and screening can do that,"
said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the Teal Group.

 

Still, the mystery of Flight 370 would
have been even more perplexing if it wasn't for some of these
technologies. The little information we have today about where the plane
might have crashed came from satellites.

 

"If it weren't for the technologies,
nobody would have had a clue where to look," said Scott Hamilton,
managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co.

 

Here is a look at how old and new technologies have aided or hindered the search effort.

TRANSPONDERS

These cockpit devices send signals to
radar stations on the ground with details about the plane's flight
number, heading, speed and altitude. The transponder also can be used to
send predetermined messages to air traffic controllers. For instance,
if a plane's transponder squawks out a code of "7500" it means there has
been a hijacking.

 

A squawk of "7600" refers to a radio failure and
"7700" means an emergency.

 

Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia at 12:40 a.m. local time on March 8, heading to Beijing. Then
at 1:20 a.m., the transponder stopped transmitting. The Boeing 777-200ER
with 239 passengers and crew aboard kept flying for several hours but
no further signals were ever received from the transponder.

 

It's rare for a commercial
pilot to intentionally turn off a transponder during flight, but
occasionally there is a legitimate reason, such as a malfunction,
electrical short or fire. Pilots would want to shut it down rather than
risk a fire spreading.

 

RADAR

 

Radar was developed just before the start
of World War II. The word radar is actually an acronym: radio (use the R
and the A) detection and ranging.

 

An antenna on the ground sends out
electromagnetic waves. They reflect, or backscatter, from the surface of
an aircraft and almost instantly return to the radar station. Since
these radio waves travel at a known, set speed — the speed of light —
the radar system is able to calculate how far away a plane is from the
antenna.

 

But radar's only able to track planes
within 200 to 250 miles, depending on the age of the technology and the
weather. Station locations are selected to allow for a slight overlap so
planes in high-traffic areas are never out of reach.

 

In the case of the Malaysia Airlines jet,
military radar picked up a signal at 2:14 a.m. of a plane flying in the
opposite direction of Flight 370's original path. The radar signal was
infrequent and there was no transponder data, making it harder to track.

 

Normally, when planes leave areas of
radar coverage, pilots use high-frequency radios or satellite text communications to update air traffic controllers of their position at
routine intervals.

 

SATELLITE TRACKING

 

Some jets use satellites to regularly
send maintenance data back to headquarters. Malaysia Airlines did not
opt to subscribe to this service from Boeing. The jet's disappearance
has many calling for airlines to live stream information from planes'
voice and data recorders. However, transmitting data by satellite from
all 80,000 daily flights worldwide wouldn't be cheap — it costs $7 to
$13 a minute for each plane. And it's not like airlines are flush with
extra cash. On average, they made $4.13 in profit per passenger last
year and $2.05 in 2012.

 

Other satellite transmissions from the
plane, however, helped searchers ultimately narrow in on the plane's
final location in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

 

The plane automatically
sent a brief signal — a "ping" — every hour to a satellite belonging to
Inmarsat, a British company, even after other communication systems shut
down. The pings indicated that the jet kept flying for seven hours
after its last radar contact.

 

Inmarsat was able to calculate two long
arcs indicating where the plane might have flown. It refined that
analysis by factoring in the jet's speed relative to the satellite. The
company gauged how the frequency was received and transmitted — the
so-called Doppler effect is similar to the way the sound of a passing
car changes as it approaches and passes by a fixed point.

 

This Burst Frequency Offset method had
never been used before. Its validity was confirmed by applying the
analysis to six other Boeing 777 flights — whose positions were known—
on the same day, flying in various directions.

 

That new information led to an
announcement Monday night by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that
the plane ended its flight in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

 

SATELLITE IMAGES

 

Private satellites and those of several
governments have spotted what were initially believed to be parts of the
plane in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1,550 miles southwest of
Perth, Australia. But the search area was moved 680 miles to the
northeast on Friday, as Australian officials said a new analysis of
radar data suggests the plane had flown faster and therefore ran out of
fuel more quickly than had been previously estimated.

 

That means searchers have concluded that
the hundreds of floating objects detected over the last week by
satellite weren't from the plane after all. Any images picked up by
satellites might be the best tool in ultimately finding the remains of
the plane.

 

CELLPHONES

 

Many people initially asked why cellphone
GPS data couldn't be used to help find the missing plane. Several
relatives of passengers said they were getting phones to ring, even if
they remained unanswered. Smartphones can help pinpoint a person's
location but only if they are near a cellular tower allowing the phone
to transmit data. If a plane is 7 miles up in the air or flying over the
ocean, the phone won't be able to connect with towers on land. As for
why the phones kept ringing, that's sometimes what happens when a
network can't locate a phone.

 

SEARCH PLANES

 

Several planes are
searching for the plane in an area that' an eight-hour round-trip flight
from their Australian base. That leaves only enough fuel a two-hour
search of the target area. Among the planes searching are a Lockheed P-3
Orion and a C-130 Hercules.

 

The flight crews use a radar system and
infrared, long-range and high resolution cameras — plus their own
eyesight — to search the ocean. They also films everything so they can
review what they've seen after they return to base.

But the searches have been hampered by dangerously high winds and churning seas.

 

BUOYS

 

A C-130 Hercules military transport plane
has been dropping 3-foot long buoys with GPS into the water to help get
a better understand of the ocean currents in the search area. While not
perfect, the idea is to get clues about where crash debris might float
over time to further refine the search.

 

BLACK BOXES

 

There are two so-called black boxes,
which are actually orange. One records conversations and noises in the
cockpit.

 

The other saves key flight data such as speed and altitude.

 

The boxes are designed to withstand
strong impacts and large fires. They also come with a device that pings
to help searchers find it underwater, though the deeper the box, the
more difficult it is to hear those pings. The U.S. Navy has sent a Towed
Pinger Locator to the Indian Ocean. It can hear the black box pinger
down to a depth of about 20,000 feet.

 

The black box battery is required to last
at least 30 days, but information can be retrieved for years. It took
23 months to find the black boxes from an Air France crash in 2009. All
of the data was recovered.

 

In the case of Flight 370, there's a
problem. The cockpit voice recorders only save the last two hours of
conversations. The plane flew for nearly seven hours after the
transponder stopped emitting a signal. So, any cockpit conversation or
noises from when the plane initially went off course were likely
recorded over.