Missing Malaysia Airlines plane puts new satellite sensors in the spotlight

Mar 21 2014, 01:17 IST
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The plane vanished from radar screens on March 8 with 239 people aboard. Reuters The plane vanished from radar screens on March 8 with 239 people aboard. Reuters
SummaryThe unexplained fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has thrown the spotlight on some satellite technologies.

The unexplained fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has thrown the spotlight on some satellite technologies that will make it easier in future for authorities to track and communicate with aircraft over water and uninhabited areas.

The plane vanished from radar screens on March 8 with 239 people aboard. Investigators believe it most likely flew into the southern Indian Ocean.

Already, new systems are being developed by European and North American teams to allow more accurate plotting of location and flight paths. These would use satellite-based sensors rather than radars to pick up signals containing automated location and velocity data sent every second from aircraft.

Currently, information on a plane's location can be picked up by ground-based radar, which loses coverage over oceans or remote areas, or it can be combined with optional on-board satellite communications tools that require pilot actions and that airlines, many under budget constraints, must pay for.

While automated signals giving an aircraft's location could still be switched off, as may have happened in the Malaysian case, the new satellite sensors could still aid search and rescue efforts and help airlines save fuel.

Aireon LLC, a joint venture between U.S satellite operator Iridium, the Canadian air navigation service and three European air traffic control authorities - says it will provide a space-based global air traffic surveillance system beginning in 2018.

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) is also working on a project with Luxembourg-based satellite firm SES and space electronics group Thales Alenia Germany, a joint venture between Thales and Finmeccanica.

Tony Tyler, head of global aviation association IATA, said the hunt for Flight 370 would drive interest in new solutions.

"It's extraordinary that with all the technology that we've got that an aircraft can disappear like this," he told reporters in London last week. "Certainly I think it will trigger a desire to see how can we avoid this from happening again."

At present, only 10 percent of the Earth's surface has radar infrastructure, leaving huge gaps in coverage in places like certain regions of Australia, deserts or oceans.

While data transmissions from the separate Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), a system similar to text messaging, can be sent via VHF radio link or satellite already, these transmissions can leave gaps of 15-30 minutes, and the amount of data sent varies from airline to airline.

"We often just don't know the exact current position of aircraft these days," said Joerg Behrens, divisional head at the

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