Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The mystery of flight MH370: How on earth, with all our technology, do we lose a giant plane?

Now this is a mystery in itself.


The fourth day of the MH370 search-and-rescue mission has come to a close, and we’re still no closer to finding the missing plane. The search area has been expanded from 50 nautical miles (57 miles; 93km) to 100 nautical miles. It has also come to light that MH370′s co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, was extremely unprofessional during a flight in 2011. On a flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur, Hamid invited two South African teenagers into the cockpit, where they remained for the entirety of the flight, while he and the pilot smoked cigarettes while flying the plane. Whether this new finding has any bearing on the fate of MH370, we’ll have to wait and see. Read on for previous updates and the original story.



As the Malaysia Airlines MH370 search-and-rescue mission enters its fourth day, we still know almost nothing about the fate of the plane and the 239 people on board. Two passengers were travelling with stolen passports, but Interpol says they weren’t terrorist threats. According to Malaysian military radar, it now seems likely that MH370 turned back after its last contact with air traffic control, possibly crashing into the Strait of Malacca. We still have no idea why it turned back, or where the plane ended up.

Updated @ 19:30 March 10: Very little new information has come to light since this story was first published this morning. Despite some oil slicks and debris being found in the South China Sea, authorities have confirmed that they didn’t originate from the MH370. Numerous experts have attested to the Boeing 777′s excellent reliability and safety record, and puzzlement at how it could vanish from the skies. We still have no idea how or why the plane disappeared, nor where it crashed. There are very, very few reasons for a modern plane to suddenly disappear. Read on for the original story.

Three days ago, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished from radar off the south coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea. 239 people were on board — and at this point, it is presumed that they have all perished in some kind of disaster. 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. 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. For me, it’s mind blowing that all we have to go on is the plane’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?

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.

Flight path and search area for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 [Image credit: BBC]

For me, the most shocking aspect of the MH370 disaster is that we won’t know what fate befell those 239 souls until we find MH370′s Flight Data Recorder (FDR), aka the black box. Except for that last radar reading, we have absolutely no knowledge of the flight at all until we find that FDR. 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, and almost two years to find the the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and FDR.
The FDR has an underwater locator beacon (ULB) that will ping for at least 30 days, and can be detected up to around two miles away, but when you’re talking about a search area consisting of thousands of square miles, and waters that are almost a mile deep on average, finding the black box will be no mean feat. (Read: Worried about black boxes snooping on you? One is in your car already.)

Do we live in the stone age or something?


Inside a modern, solid-state Cockpit Voice Recorder. The Flight Data Recorder is very similar.

So, 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.

(Read: Think GPS is cool? IPS will blow your mind.)

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.

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?

The short answer is, there’s no good reason.

The long answer is, an aircraft generates a lot of data, and no one has bothered to work out a way of transmitting, receiving, and storing that data in a sensible fashion. The fact that disasters like MH370 are incredibly rare is probably one reason that the airline industry hasn’t got around to figuring it out. In 2013, there were around 36 million flights, with 281 total fatalities — and only 105 of those were on commercial jetliners. Compare this to car accidents, where in the US alone 34,080 people died in 2012.

Even so, it is hard to believe that in 2014, aircraft don’t transmit their location and bearing every few milliseconds. There is more than enough bandwidth on the lower radio frequencies for an airplane to transmit this data to the nearest land-based receiving station. Some planes, as I’m sure you’ve heard, even provide WiFi internet access to passengers. It’s hard to believe that the same network couldn’t be used to beam real-time flight data back to air traffic control.

Flightradar24 does a good job of tracking aircraft using the new ADS-B transponder tech, but only over land. ADS-B, which is set to replace radar for aircraft tracking in the next 10 years, will help matters — but it’s not a complete solution.

Perhaps, much like how your smartphone waits for a WiFi connection before downloading or uploading large amounts of data, the plane could scale up how much data it sends: It could transmit basic flight data at all times via VHF, and then a full stream of data from the FDR when there’s a communications satellite overhead. Ultimately, even though FDRs might record more than 100 variables and diagnostics, we’re still only talking about a maximum bandwidth requirement of a few megabits; realistically, a few hundred kilobits per second would probably be more than enough.

With the hunt for the AF447 FDR taking almost two years, and now the very high profile disaster of MH370, I wouldn’t be surprised if the airline industry finally takes a serious look at mid-flight aircraft monitoring.

Source: ExtremeTech

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