We live in a world where it’s pretty hard to disappear. Unless you go cash-only, don’t use a passport, and forgo flying, you’re going to come up on the grid. Your Internet activity is going to leave a fingerprint, too, unless you are tech-savvy enough to entirely navigate what’s out there that’s working to see where you’ve been. In some countries, you are even subject to blatant scrutiny via surveillance cameras complete with sophisticated facial recognition capabilities at every subway, plaza, municipal building, or hospital. So if a person has a hard time disappearing, how can a jetliner full of fuel and passengers do just that?
It’s been a year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing. In case you were living the life of a Luddite, the flight left Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia en route to Beijing with 239 people on board. The plane took a sharp off-course turn and vanished from radar. Radar as in all radar. With the onboard tracking devices and transponders shut down while the flight was in progress, all that was left were some satellite pings. These were used to determine that the Boeing 777 had traveled for seven more hours before running out of fuel and crashing somewhere in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.
The first new technology or application to come out of the failed flight was an application in which mathematicians used the satellite pings and available data to create a fuller picture of the flight path than had ever been available with traditional methods. They did this by using a sort of Doppler Effect to estimate speed and location. The satellite pings were also examined to help establish on-flight events during the time the airplane was out of radar contact. The fact remains that despite the use of satellite tracking and even with some of the most exact seafloor maps ever made, no trace of the airplane has ever been found.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the flight was tracked via radar or satellite the entire time by an entity that doesn’t want to make its surveillance capabilities known…but that unsettling thought aside, a new tracking protocol is to be put in place. Announced by Airservices Australia a week before the March 8th anniversary, this new method will be tested with its counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia. It will enable planes to be tracked every 15 minutes, rather than the typical 30 to 40 minutes. That tracking could increase in frequency to five minutes or less if the plane deviates from its course.
Sounds like we’re good to go – unless the tracking equipment and transponder shut down during the flight.
Gina Hagler is a freelance writer and published author who covers science, technology, health, climate change, bubbles, and species survival–among other topics. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). She is also the author of Sammi’s New Normal: The Storybook Illustrated Guide to Epilepsy. You’ll find more of her work at www.ginahagler.com.
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