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The hunt for flight MH370 pushes technology to the limit

Amidst all the coverage of the missing Malaysian airlines flight MH370 - and the varying speculations about what actually happened - there’s been one constant: a shared astonishment  that in our increasingly small, increasingly connected world, something as large, and as bristling with technology as a commercial airliner can simply disappear from the sky.

The tragic incident - and our collective unease at the apparent lack of an explanation - has been a reminder of how much we expect from our technology, and perhaps how much we take it for granted.

For the friends and relatives of the passengers aboard the aircraft, the official conclusion that the plane crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean offers little in the way of closure.  That will only come when - or if - the aircraft is recovered and the reasons for the crash are established.

But for the rest of us - the emergence of verifiable satellite data does at least represent the beginning of a return to a more familiar world, a world where technology supplies the answers.

However as the search for the aircraft enters its next phase and authorities consider the prospect of scouring the sea-bed for signs of the missing aircraft,  we could soon encounter a fresh reminder of our technological limits.

As The Engineer learned at the recent Oceanology conference (held in London earlier this month)  the seabed is our planet’s last unexplored wilderness. As one delegate told me, plumbing its depths and addressing the huge navigation and communication problems this presents, has more in common with space exploration than any other area of engineering.

And although the capabilities of today’s subsea systems are truly remarkable, it’s by no means a given that they will be able to locate the missing aircraft any time soon. As another expert remarked, the search corridor is so wide, that it could take years to examine the surrounding sea-bed in any detail.

Look out for the next issue of The Engineer for an in-depth look at autonomous underwater vehicle technology.


Readers' comments (15)

  • may god help

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  • It certainly will push technology to the limits, it is MH370 they are looking for, not MH730

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  • Very simple solution to this problem - it should not be possible for the crew to turn off the transponder.

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  • Too much reliance on searching for a little black box for answers. Why isnt the critical flight and voice data along with location coordinates transmitted in near real time back to base? The airlines would know issues and events straightaway and rescue efforts would be faster and more precise. Data for the post inevstigation would already be known and the black box would become just a secondary back-up.

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  • Regular packet transmission via satellite and/or long range LF RF of basic information including identity, critical systems status, location. Speed, heading, height, and critical systems status should be mandatory for all commercial aircraft.

    However finding a ‘lost’ object in large and relatively small areas is a regular and largely ignored problem. It’s not just finding aircraft in large spaces, we repeatedly lose track of people and boats at sea in small spaces very close to our UK coastline as well as mountains and other open areas.

    There are techniques possible utilising visual, IR, and other sensor and signal transmission characteristics ( such as demonstrated by Inmarsat), which along with data fusion from multiple sources could aid automated location and potential identification of anomalous objects in large areas and/or difficult conditions where human monitoring is notorious difficult.

    Unfortunately there seems to be no commercial or government interest in developing this capability. Even accepted lifesavers such as lifeboats are charity funded.

    I think this is an area where the already established voluntary disaster emergency mapping could be very effectively augmented by use of satellite and other data to further develop the data fusion based mapping work into key object / event solution.

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  • The present "black box" Cockpit Voice and Data Recorders were conceived and patented in the 50s and 60s. Updates mean the continuous loop recording now holds 2 hours of data rather than 30 minutes, but it sounds as if the deployed technology has not kept pace with developments. If it were not for the engine manufacturers using more modern systems the potential search area would cover most of the Indian Ocean and half of south Asia.
    One thing is certain - regulations must be introduced to ensure this situation cannot happen again. The on board CVDR should only be a back up - continuous transmission of all relevant data to satellites as long as the engines were powered and for a suitable time afterwards is the least that should be mandated. US navy aircraft have ejectable (on impact) recorders that float.

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  • The main thing that strikes me is the lack of common sense by the authorities as to some logical plan as to where the aircraft could go to; its overall range and confine the search area to this. They seem to be like headless chickens running around without any idea!

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  • Indeed, with the advancement of knowledge and technolgy in today’s generation as achieved by developed countries, yet the important data below sea and ocean with its vast area considering that mother's earth surface area is 70% more water however there’s no clear protocol and governing standards that governs sea travel and those below it. The recent tragic event surrounding the Malaysian Airline flight MH 370 which until now has not been found present important challenges to the international community of nations or that the united nation should establish and spearhead state of the art technology that will help for search and retrieval operations in times of tragedies and accidents such as this. The Titanic ship was found after so many long years after it happened with the use of deep sea search vessels but now it seems that such ship should be manufactured more and do more on the improvement of sonar surveillance and detections worldwide be put into effect. Rather making more weapons of mass destruction those G7 countries should do more.

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  • In these days of the Cloud and cheap small satellite beacons why why wasn't the black box virtually continuously downloaded and several independent beacons located on major portions of the aircraft. These beacons could serve two purposes. Satellite response during flight and if on the surface and then conserving its battery to respond to underwater transmissions to ease location by underwater search vessels.

    Archie

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  • It is unbelievable that crew members could turn off high security navigation equipment such transponders and ACARS. Please inform what are the advantages enabling the crew to switch off such equipment. I cannot see none but at in a military aircraft.

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  • It would need to be made impossible for anyone on the aircraft to switch off the real time transmission of any positional data as the transponder and the backup transponder stopped responding on flight MH370, they may have been switched off by someone on the aircraft.

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  • There are satellite images waiting to be analysed that could: a) visually track the flight (inc IR images); b) find debris.

    Why are we not considering crowdsourcing, by putting the images out and getting many people analsing as many images as they can - correlate the results to indicate the most likely place to look?

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  • It looks to me that they are trying to not find it.

    Why are they not using microphone arrays (with multi channel recorder) to tell the direction of the beeps - will give a very accurate line. 'Stereolocation'.

    Tony Abbot should understand that better than anyone else.

    Get a good line from two different locations; MH370 (or CIA)

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  • Why is it possible to turn off transponders? Perhaps in the event of a commercial aeroplane straying over a hostile country, it might prove advantageous.....thin, but a possibility.

    Stereolocation? How deep is the Indian Ocean? I daresay they have thought of that but there are, amongst many other more problems deep underwater, the issue of underwater currents, dramatic changes in water temperature etc. which all conspire to distort and carry signals many miles from their transmission point.

    Real time data uplinks can be sabotaged or overcome by a determined and knowledgeable individual.

    And my questions are, if whoever took control of the aircraft had the fairly intimate knowledge to turn off a transponder, surely he/she would be able to fly and navigate the thing. And if the objective were to proceed, undetected to a suitable landing site, even the crew would have helped with both flying and navigation, if for nothing more than self preservation. If the intention were just to crash the plane into the sea, why bother turning off the transponder, and why fly several hundred miles to do it? Why not just take control of the plane and crash it immediately? Indeed, what is the point of turning off the transponder at all, once a hijacker has control over an aircraft, the worst that can happen is it would get shot down if it approached a city, no one's going to shoot it down over the ocean. And seriously, if you hijacked a plane, you wouldn't fly it to a Westernised country (Australia) to land it, you're only going to get nicked.

    I smell a big rat.

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  • "Stereolocation? How deep is the Indian Ocean? I daresay they have thought of that but there are, amongst many other more problems deep underwater, the issue of underwater currents, dramatic changes in water temperature etc. which all conspire to distort and carry signals many miles from their transmission point."

    With all due respect, David, depth has nothing to do with it.

    Are you saying you can see as well with one eye as with two?

    Stereo is going to give you a lot more useful information than 'plopping a hydrophone in the water' here and 'plopping it in the water' there.

    I do agree with you on the rat, tho.

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