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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)

  • 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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