New Technology Will Transform The Way We Track And Find Lost Planes

New Technology Will Transform The Way We Track And Find Lost Planes

Kevin Ashton, who is working on a book about creation, invention, and discovery, had an Op-Ed in yesterday’s (April, 29, 2014) New York Times, “Finding A Flash Drive In The Sea,” about the difficulties in finding missing planes, especially those who likely reside on the bottom of the deep ocean; and, what the future may hold.

He writes that “the aerial search for floating debris from [missing] Malaysian Flight 370 — was called off, and an underwater search based on possible locator beacon signals was completed without success. Although efforts to find the missing aircraft have not been abandoned, Angus Houston, the man in charge of finding the plane, said, “We haven’t found anything, anywhere.”

“The more than 50-day operation, which the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, calls “probably the most difficult search in human history,” highlights a big technology gap,” writes Mr. Ashton. “We live in the age of what I once called “the Internet of Things,” where everything from cars to bathroom scales, to Crock Pots, can be connected to the Internet, but somehow, airplane data systems are barely connected to anything.”

“Investigators discovered Flight 370’s path to the Indian Ocean using an unorthodox analysis of data from the plane’s Aircraft Communications. Addressing and Reporting System, or Acars, which was invented in the 1970s; and, is based on telex, an almost century-old ancestor of text messaging made essentially obsolete by fax machines,” added Mr. Ashton. That aircraft system was not designed for locating planes. The black box flight data recorders that are the focus of the search for Flight 370, are little more than super-tough memory sticks with locator beacons. When so much is connected to the internet, why is the aerospace industry using technology that predates fax machines to look for flash drives in the sea?,” asks Mr. Ashton.

“Because, while technology for communicating from the ground has advanced rapidly in the last 40yrs., technology for communicating from the sky has been struck in the 1970s. The problem,” Mr. Ashton says, “starts not with planes, but with the satellites that track them. The Sentinel-1A satellite, for example, weighs two and a half tons, costs around $400M, and was launched on a rocket designed in Soviet Russia in the 1960s. The Sentinel can store the same amount of data as seven iPhones. When was this relic from the age of the mainframe computers sent into orbit? On April 3. Huge, expensive, rocket-launched satellites, with little computing power may make sense for broadcasting, where one satellite sends one signal to lots of things (such as television sets), but they are generally too expensive and not intelligent enough to be part of the Internet, where lots of things (such as airplanes) would send lots of signals to one satellite. This is why most satellites reflect TV signals that drive GPS systems. It is also the reason airplanes can’t stream flight and location data like they stream vapor trails: cellphone and Wi-Fi signals don’t reach the ground from 30K ft., so airplanes need to be able to send information to satellites — satellites that, as well as being unable to handle network data economically, are designed to talk to rotating, dish-shaped antennas that would be impossible to retrofit to airplanes.”

“The solution to these problems,” writes Mr. Ashton, “is simple: We need new satellite technology. And, it’s arriving. Wealthy private investors and brilliant young engineers are dragging satellites into the 21st century — with inventions including “flocks” of “nano-satellites” that weigh as little as three pounds; flat, thin antennas built frome advanced substances called “meta-materials;” and “beamforming.” which steers radio signals using software.”

“On January 9, 2014, a San Francisco-based start-up called Planet Labs, sent a flock of 28 nano-satellites into space. The first application for this type of technology is taking pictures of the Earth; but, it could also be used to receive data streaming from aircraft retrofitted with those new, flat, “meta-material” antennas. There are many other possible systems. Dozens of new satellite technologies are emerging with countless ways to combine them. Streaming data from planes is about to become cheap and easy.”

“The satellite revolution is not just about airplanes,” adds Mr. Ashton. David Cowan, a venture capitalist who is on the board of Skybox Imaging, a manufacturer of 220lb., “mircro-satellites,” calls the big picture “planetary awareness.” Combing data from sensors on satellite networks with information from things like phones, cars, and planes, will give us a comprehensive, constantly updating picture of the world. Everybody will be able to see everything — from crops growing, to traffic jamming, to armies invading, to icecaps melting. Vanishing airplanes will be a thing of the past.”

“Today’s bit aerospace companies may not embrace this revolution unprompted,” Mr. Ashton notes. “Seeing satellites as network computers and airplanes as nodes that communicate with them requires a new mind-set. Airplanes, airplane makers and regulators are feeling perplexed and defensive about the public outcry over the inability to know where their planes are; and, whether something is wrong with them. One industry insider told me, [Mr. Ashton] “There’s no cost-effective justification for streaming data from aircraft.” What would you do if you had the information””

Mr. Ashton concludes, “one of the many things you would do: You would never again put families of 239 people through an agony of uncertainty as you searched for an airplane that flew itself for hours until it ran out of gas and crashed into the sea.”

Sounds promising as we move forward into the technological revolution that ion going with respect to the Internet of Things, as well as with satellite technology — including micro, and pop-up nano-satellietes. While this kind of technology holds promise in the not-too-distant-future — for finding lost planes, I also suspect that this technology might also be a double-edged sword — with respect to stealth technology (fighter/bomber aircraft) as well as stealth drones. I am not an engineer — so, just guessing here.

Other Ideas For Finding Lost Planes

Experts have described the search for missing Malaysian Flight 370 akin to “finding pieces of a needle in a haystack;” and, we haven’t even found the haystack — yet. Kelsey Atherton, writing in Popular Science,” earlier this month, had additional ideas to what Mr. Ashton proposes. One idea he says, “a floating black box. In a Marc T. Angelucci’s design for an “Automatically Ejecting Flight Data Recorder,” where the black box is attached to a floatation device; and, put into a compartment that opens directly to the outside of the plane. When the plane crashes in water, the cover opens and compresses gas ejects the black box.

Another idea is An “Airplane Buddy System:” Granted just days before Malaysian Flight 370 went missing, Laurence Mutuel and Benoit Couturier’s “Method and device for assisting and locating lost aircraft,” patent for multi-national military defense contractor — Thales — aims to solve the problem of losing an airplane outside radar coverage. The “method and device” patent would augment radar data with the closest thing the skies have to outsourcing — information from other airplanes.

And, finally, Underwater Echos: The Boeing aircraft corporation filed for a patent in Canada for an “Aircraft location system for locating aircraft in the water environments.” Invented by Christopher S. Huskamp and Bonnie L. Gorsic, this system would help investigators to find the major parts of a plane after it has crashed and broken up. In order to do this, the inventors propose a system of sound reflectors that send frequencies back when searched for by sonar. The reflectors are located on several distinct parts of the plane: like the wing, the tail, cockpit, and engine couplings. The system would reflect two different sounds: the first in response to sonar; and, the second is in response to a specific sonar sound — sent at a different frequency to confirm the plane is underwater. There’s also a radio signal sent out when the first sonar is detected. In essence, the entire system is a way for an underwater airplane to call back ‘Polo,’ in response to a sonar – ‘Marco.’

So, lots of food for thought as we look to the future of how to better track and find lost aircraft. V/R, RCP.


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