The hunt for flight MH370 pushes technology to the limit


The ongoing search for the missing Malaysian airlines flight is a powerful reminder of technological limitations

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.