MH 370

Misfortune or Lack of Technology


It was Saturday midnight March 8, 2014 when Malaysian Airliner MH 370 lost its contact with Air Traffic Control putting the whole world on verge of surprise as to what happened to it and where did it disappear. In this age of technology when there are lot of satellites in the space gathering almost all of the data transmitted by radio frequency and GPS enabled devices, it’s really a mystery that more than dozen countries have failed to track the route of aircraft or the place of its possible crash.

In an aircraft several communication systems are kept installed so that it could communicate with primary radar or could send signals, showing it’s presence, when out of the radar range. What happened to MH 370 is quite perplexing as it’s primary communication system comprising of “transponders” was switched off deliberately, as told by the authorities, so that the airliner could not be shown up on primary radar while continuing its flying sequence over an unknown path towards an unknown destination. It gives air to the rumour that the airliner could have possibly been hijacked by the hijackers onboard.

Other than transponders there is a satellite communication system installed in a plane as well as an emergency location transmitter that could not be turned off by anyone but no emergency signals, showing any kind of distress, were transmitted by the communication system nor the route of the airliner was made known to air traffic control.

The only thing that could have been revealed so far is the presence of aircraft on secondary or military radar in the Malacca Strait area of Malaysia and an evidence of the “handshake” of airliner satellite communication system with a satellite named “Inmarsat” as confirmed by the British Satellite Communications Company. The analysis of satellite data revealed that the last ping received by the satellite from MH 370 aircraft was about four to five hours after it lost its control with primary radar. Inmarsat described the communication signals from the plane as “routine” and “automated”, without disclosing any details regarding the exact timing of the signals in relation to the aircraft’s disappearance on March 8.

In case the airliner has crashed it’s not that much difficult though not easy to trace the place of it’s possible crash. The “Black Box” of the aircraft, that has never been black in color, continuously pings radio signals through it’s battery that could last for 30 days after crash. When the aircraft crashes into the water, the pingers of Black Box are turned on automatically and ping radio signals that could be detected through some specialized equipments like SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging) but so far no pings from black box are detected anywhere around its suspected route over the sea.

A Cross-sectional Study of Flight Data Recorders-Courtesy Reuters.

Why It’s lack of Technology?

As discussed above the satellite communication system of an aircraft could communicate with a satellite but the system installed in MH 370, like other airliners, was outdated with no GPS data sharing with radar control and therefore despite the ping of signals the location of the aircraft remained unknown. Normally the GPS system in an aircraft is used only to show pilots their position on a map without sharing it with air traffic control but some of the most modern aircraft are able to “uplink” GPS data to satellite tracking services, but handling large volumes of flight data is expensive and such systems are usually only used in remote areas with no radar coverage. In case the GPS sharing system was present in the aircraft the exact location and the route taken by MH 370 could have easily been revealed.

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. In such an advanced and modern era the absence of an important communication system from an aircraft is quite astonishing and puts a question mark on the performance of aircraft manufacturers.

What Should Be In an Aircraft?

The need of time is that the airliners should be equipped with latest technologies enabling them to communicate with the radars and satellites in case if there is absolute failure of communication system. Along with GPS enabled tracking and sharing, a cloud based system that can keep logs of communication taking place in the cockpit could be worked out in consultation with technologists and researchers all around the world. The proposed system could record the communication in cockpit and update it to its control panel at air traffic or radar control. The system might demand lot of storage for keeping record of all communications but this problem could be resolved by setting up an option to delete old record after every 48 hrs.

Some auto triggered sensors could also be installed in the cockpit to send automatic distress signals to radar control in case of failure of communication system or unauthorized access of someone in the area. Another possible thing is to authorize the secondary or military radars to track and communicate with the civil airliners within their range. In this way the aircraft will be able to be detected and monitored even if it loses control with its primary radar. These are some of the options that could be employed to avert mishaps like one that happened to MH 370.