The Case of Flight MH370: What Technological Advance?

“This is 2014!! In these days of all our technology, how could a huge airliner 63 meters long, weighing 145 tons and carrying 239 people just vanish mid-air?” is the general rhetoric echoing all over the internet on the aftermath of the bewildering, mysterious and tragic disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 2014. It has been 5 days now and investigators from 11 nations have not managed to even explain what happened to the airliner, forget finding it. Surely they are working overtime and are doing all in their power to find what happened to the missing aircraft, but it sadly looks like they are being stonewalled. Almost all plausible theories have been put forward as the reason for the disappearance of MH370 including but not limited to terrorism, mid-air explosion, pilot failure, onboard fire, hijacking, structural failure, power failure, pilot suicide, electronic warfare, governmental conspiracy, black holes, aliens and what not. (This seems to be the most plausible explanation on what really happened and why they are unable to locate the plane. One still hope though, that it has not crashed and has landed somewhere safe :(

And then there is the despicable, snobby, stupid, senseless, pathetic Indian media.

A Tree in the Forest and a Plane in the Sky

Coming back to #MH370, what really happened? People on the ground lost contact with the plane and nobody knows what happened to it afterwards or where it went. They’ve been searching in the vicinity where they lost contact but haven’t found anything. As of now, they simply don’t know where to look for the plane. The Americans say that the plane might have crashed into the Indian Ocean, hundreds of kilometers off course. But how come they don’t know where the plane is and what path it was taking? Surely someone must be sitting somewhere and monitoring where exactly every plane is at every given moment of time right? Nope. Not really. Yes, as long as it is under ground radar coverage, people on the ground know exactly where the plane is. But once out of it, nobody actually knows where that huge flying hunk of metal actually is, how fast it is flying, where it is going or if the pilot performing  oop-the-loop stunts instead of flying it straight. Flights are supposed to follow a specified flight path (usually flown on autopilot) and it is assumed that they do follow this course at all times. Pilots check with ground stations and Air Traffic Controllers only at fixed points en route. Only when a pilot fails to report in is when they realize something has gone horribly wrong, leading to the issuance of chilling “missing plane” statements.

Simply put, a commercial airliner does not broadcast its position. Ground radar has to track it, and once ground radar coverage ends, which is usually 40 km off shore, the plane is as good as non-existent. It does send pings and ACARS data, but that does nothing to plot its course.

We are unable to find where MH370 went because:

  1. It did not broadcast its position.
  2. Its transponder was switched off hence any Ground Radar could not detect it as a plane.

Most planes fly long-haul over vast oceans which do not have any sort of radar coverage. A plane over vast spreads of sea practically does not exist. A famous existential thought experiment question asks: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?“. Similarly, if a plane is flying in the sky and nobody knows it is there, does it really exist? We know it is there, but like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we do not know where it exactly is. To put it in perspective,

North Pacific Ocean

This is a Google Maps screenshot of just a part of the North Pacific Ocean, 5000 km x 2500 km in area. Can you spot the plane in there? It is there. Somewhere. Or is it?

In this age of so-called technology, it would come as a shock to most people that when a plane is out of sight, nobody actually knows in real time if it is there where it is supposed to be. Very comforting. Of course, all data of the plane will be famously recorded and stored in the Black “orange” Boxes and all we have to do is extract the data to know the course of the plane. But the problem is that in the event of a crash or otherwise, these boxes but have to be brought to a lab and analyzed before National Geographic can make a documentary of it. When Air France flight AF447 crashed in the middle of the Atlantic on June 1 2009, it took search crews 5 days to figure out what happened to the aircraft and a whopping two years and 40 million dollars to fish the Black (orange) Boxes out of the Atlantic and then another year to reconstruct what happened to the Airbus 330. In all possibility, it might take longer to figure out what happened to the Boeing 777. Which brings us to the most frequently asked question ever since MH370 was reported missing:

“Why isn’t Aircraft data live-streamed instead of stored it in a box on the plane?”

The answer is: Cost Cutting. The entire live-streaming and storing aircraft data will obviously cost a bomb: Development and installation of all the required software and hardware equipment and assorted paraphernalia for this on board tens of thousands of planes and over hundreds of locations on the ground, hiring tens of thousands of people to operate and maintain all this, transmission and satellite costs and so on. There are an approximate 8000 planes in the air at any given time and it would be quite a herculean task tracking all of them. But that is no excuse. Apparently all that money we pay for airfares they seemingly pull out of their vertical stabilizers is not good enough.

“Why can’t airplanes have GPS? Even Smartphones have them!”

“Airplanes have GPS dude. I have seen websites that track airline movements.”

Of course airplanes have GPS. They wouldn’t even function without them. But the problem is that only the people on the airplane can see where they are (GPS data) as it is simply not shared with anyone else. Websites like Flightaware and FlightRadar24 do show real-time flight path and data of planes including lat-long, heading, speed and altitude. But their data is not obtained directly from the aircraft but through technological crowdsourcing of pulling and collecting data from ATCs, ground (radar) stations and their own ADS-B Tracking stations from across the globe. When this data is not available (above an ocean for example), it “estimates“, “calculates” or “approximates” above said data of the plane, which might not be accurate or dependable. For example, look at the flight data of Virgin Australia Flight 001 from Sydney to Los Angeles over the Pacific for any date. You can see a lot of these “approximations” and details from where this data is collected. Flight path data of MH370 for March 08 2014 shows that the plane last transmitted it’s position at 2232 IST or around 0110 Malaysia Time, which is when they say they lost contact with the plane. They say the transponder was switched off. Why can a transponder be switched off? How stupid is that?? It is the most basic identification device of a plane! It simply should not be possible to switch off a Transponder!

mh370 location map

What Technological Advancement?

We are living in an age of apparent tech awesomeness. We have extra-Solar probes, the world at our fingertips, 3D movies, cars with more computing power than Apollo 11, photographs from a million light years away, keyhole and remote surgery. We (NSA) can monitor every single human being on Earth (but apparently not planes) and we can split atoms of atoms. We can even “Like” pictures of our drunk friends puking all over themselves 8 time zones away! Still we can’t find where a plane went? Preposterous! How could this happen with all our tech? Are we living in 2014?! And all that. What technological advancement, boss? It is all hogwash! Thanks to all the virtual tech around us, particularly mobile phones, we have been blinded into believing that we have achieved some kind of technological singularity that renders it impossible for huge airliners to go missing. Oh then there are people who say “If they had allowed cell phones to operate in planes, we could’ve found them by now“. #facepalm. If Radar couldn’t spot them, do you think a cell phone tower would? Mobile phones can be tracked (even by the intelligence agencies) only when they are switched on and under network coverage. Do you think Podafone which can’t give proper network on the ground in a city will provide coverage 10 kilometers up in the sky above an ocean?

What is all this “This is 2014!” nonsense anyway? We are light years away from achieving any kind of breakthrough in technological advancement. We are still living in stone age pre-history when it comes to the grand cosmic scale of things. For starters, we haven’t even gotten off our planet yet nor have we invented a proper robot! People in our age blinded by the Internet and mobile phones have been led to believe that we have reached the pinnacle of technological advancement. When one says “technology”, that what comes to mind of people is not “real” things The Human Genome Project or CERN or Interplanetary Travel or Flying Cars or Teleportation. If you are an average bloke like me, “technology” to you will probably mean the Internet and the device that has brought the world to our fingertips, the mobile smart phone. All that “technology” of ours is hollow and virtual. When it comes to “applicable” technology like aircraft tracking, we are still stuck in 1990 or even in the 1960s. We haven’t had any technological advances in areas where it really matters. All we have is illusions that promote only pomp and show off and stupid apps and such nonsense, trying to solve anti-problems instead of real problems.

MH370 Comment

In the past few decades, we have made much technological advancement as said above. However, other than personal communication and entertainment, what other practical or visible technological changes have taken place in the past few decades, except those of the medical field? Almost all technology today seems to be concentrated around building stuff related to the Internet. We talk about “Social” and “Cloud” but how do all these virtual technology bring about real change in the World? All these aren’t even solving any real problems! The basics of all the “hardcore” tech we use – cars, planes, trains, building tech, roads etc are the same as they have been forever. (Where are the Minority Report or Total Recall style highways bro?) We are not a patch on the great “inventive” decades of the previous century. As a kid I used to dream about teleportation, holograms, hovercars, Maglev trains, Supersonic passenger flight and, well, all that we have in the communication tech today. I might sound uninformed, but other than the obvious communication tech, I do not see much usable technology drastically altering my life around me. Or maybe I am in the wrong country. All I see is companies and corporations talking about “leveraging business practices to deliver maximum shareholder value” and other assorted jargontastic bullshit which does absolutely no good for anyone other than some overfed suits and Wall Street fatcats. Corporations which once upon a time drove innovation and change have all degenerated into money spinning profit centers looking to make fast bucks for the 1% rather than bringing mass-usable new tech to the world.

Air travel industry technology is the pits. They still use scratchy radios to communicate and paper card stackss to manually track and direct planes in the air. Why don’t they have a 3-dimensional holographic rendering model where they can see in real-time where planes are positioned in the air? Or why isn’t the entire thing automated? Why is all that tech not developed yet? Because it does not create “shareholder value” and other such corporate nonsense? Our “technology” of today boasts that we are” connected” all the time. Then why wasn’t this plane connected to anything? I am not telling that airplanes should be able to broadcast their position on Twitter every two minutes, but someone should be able to track it in flight, right?  They are unable to find the plane because they don’t know where to look for it. They don’t know where to look because they don’t know where it went after the plane’s transponder went offline. Shouldn’t we be able to know where the plane is at all times rather than having to look for a damn box in the sea? What is the use of all our so-called technology when an airplane, supposedly one of the most advanced pieces of hardware on the planet can disappear without a trace taking 239 souls with it, just because we didn’t want to implement tracking technology to save a few fucking Dollars?

pray for mh370

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