In a story yesterday [Monday] about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, David Ison, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, had this to say:
"In this day and age, having no ability to pinpoint these aircraft is really not acceptable. We have technology to make it happen. We really need to do something ... so we can prevent the loss of aircraft."
That got us thinking about how planes are tracked and if there are better ways to do it.
Tracking Planes Today
Air traffic controllers track aircraft using radar. That technology is fine when the plane is flying over land, but its limitations are exposed when the aircraft gets over water.
Additionally, radar can't spot aircraft that are flying below a certain altitude because of the Earth's curvature.
The head of Malaysia's air force said Tuesday that when military radar last saw Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, it was at least 200 miles off course. Reuters notes that if that's true, "it would mean the plane was able to maintain a cruising altitude and flew for about 500 kilometers (310 miles) with its transponder and other tracking systems apparently switched off."
And, The Guardian reports that the plane was equipped with ACARS, or the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which would automatically alert engineers at base of any mechanical failure. It's unclear if any such message was received.
Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst who now runs the AirSafe.com Foundation, tells us that the transponder is the device on the airplane that emits a radio signal with information about the aircraft such as identification, air speed and altitude. It does this when it receives an interrogation or request signal from an air traffic control radar.
Investigators say that in the case of Flight 370, the transponder disappeared suddenly. This could happen if there's a sudden loss of power or if it was switched off intentionally.
GPS is so prevalent in our lives that we can use it on our phones to give us directions or map our running routes and track distances. Airplanes have GPS, too, but they don't work the way we'd expect them to.
"Airlines do use GPS systems for navigation, but GPS signals are not used in the transmission from the emergency locator transmitters, or from the acoustic locator device (which activates when the device is submerged in water) that's carried by the black boxes," Curtis said.
In other words, an aircraft uses GPS to track itself, but doesn't share that information with air traffic control.
Ison told us today:
"We don't know the plane's position because we rely on radar for that information. If the plane isn't in view of the radar, it's position can't be detected. It's unclear how good the radar coverage was in that area although now they are saying the plane did turn and deviated from its assigned altitude."
GPS is one of several systems with which large aircraft track their positions. And if for some reason it fails - it's susceptible, Ison says, to jamming or spoofing - then the plane's inertial navigation system takes over. This system, which uses very sensitive gyros and inertial sensors to detect the plane's position based on its last-known position, is considered to be very accurate.
The Black Box
The flight data recorder or the black box is the nearly indestructible equipment that records what goes on during a flight. Trouble is that in the event of a disaster, such as the Air France flight that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, it can take years to find the black box and determine what led to a crash.
In a piece for The Guardian, Stephen Trimble, an aviation reporter and editor for Flightglobal's Americas bureau, called black boxes a "galling anachronism of modern aviation technology."
"The black box goes down with the ship, so to speak. It goes down with the aircraft," Trimble told NPR's Renee Montagne. "So all the information that we're craving right now about what happened and why, is possibly, wherever the aircraft wreckage is, possibly at the bottom of the ocean."
We asked Ison what improvements can be made in how we track aircraft. He said several technologies are already available. One of them is ADS-B (which stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) in which the aircraft transmits its position to other aircraft and ground-based receivers.
ADS-B can be used in place of radar in remote locations and in areas where radar installation isn't feasible, such as with receivers on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. But the technology hasn't been widely adopted yet.
Ison says an aircraft can also transmit its location using satellite or high-frequency radio, which can be used at long range.
"Neither of these, unfortunately, are widely used at this point," he said.
Curtis added that there are many good ideas that are technically feasible, "but it will take a coordinated effort by the aviation industry to implement any of these changes."
This week, All Things Considered will be exploring a counterfactual history of World War I and we invite you to participate. Use the form below to imagine how one aspect of the past 100 years would be different if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been killed in 1914. We will share some of the responses in a future segment.
This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I. Many argue that the conflict was inevitable — but what if it wasn't?
Without the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, there would have been no need for rulers in Vienna to threaten Serbia, no need for Russia to come to Serbia's defense, no need for Germany to come to Austria's defense — and no call for France and Britain to honor their treaties with Russia.
What would be the ripples of this counter-history?
All Things Considered host Robert Siegel put the hypothetical question to three historians: Ned Lebow, author of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace, and Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War.
Some highlights from their counterfactual history:
- A multi-national successor to Austria-Hungary would have developed in Central Europe. (Maybe not the happiest country in Europe, but not a fratricidal one, either.)
- Czarist Russia doesn't become completely undone, so the Bolshevik party's October Revolution fails. Vladimir Lenin moves to the United States where he becomes a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. Having maintained his left-wing connections, he comes in contact with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and helps write the pro-union musical, Pins and Needles.
- The Germany of the 1920s is not bled by the victorious and vindictive allies so the Nazis never come power. Europe would have been a more German-speaking continent.
- Adolf Hitler — an aspiring artist and vegetarian — never goes to war and never enters politics. Instead, he becomes the manager of a company that produces alternative medicine.
- Jews continue to thrive, and there is no Holocaust. The small Jewish settlement in Palestine continues, but without a flood of refuges it remains a minority community there.
- Without World War I, there is no World War II and no Cold War. Science develops much slower — the U.S. doesn't put a man on the moon, there is no atomic bomb, and penicillin and antibiotics are slower to hit the market.
Oh, no, not the escargot!
A vicious little worm with an appetite for snails has made its European debut. And that has some scientists worried about the future of France's famed mollusk appetizer.
The New Guinea flatworm (Platydemus manokwari) is the lone worm on the Global Invasive Species Database's list of 100 of the world's most dangerous invaders. And last November, it was discovered in a greenhouse in Caen, Normandy.
A team of experts, led by Jean-Lou Justine of France's Museum of Natural History, confirmed the trespasser's identity with molecular gene analysis. Last week, the team published its findings on the worm in PeerJ, marking the first appearance of P. manokwari on European soil.
"All snails in Europe could be wiped out," Justine told Discovery News. "It may seem ironic, but it's worth pointing out the effect that this will have on French cooking."
The voracious interloper hails from the South Pacific, where it thrives on earthworms, insects — and its preferred prey, snails. In fact, P. manokwari is such an effective snail predator that it has been deliberately released into several countries in the Pacific to keep another invader, the giant African snail, under control. It's a strategy some researchers warn is dangerous, because P. manokwari will go after wanted, native snail species as well.
Dr. Leigh Winsor, an adjunct senior fellow at James Cook University and a member of the research team that identified the predator,believes that the flatworm hitched a ride to France on a plant shipped from the Pacific region.
"We've quarantined the botanic gardens in Caen where the flatworm was found, with a prohibition on importing and exporting potted plants to and from other gardens," he tells The Salt.
The news would seem to bode ill for France's snail farmers, whose practice is already dying out. These days, 90 percent of the snails found on the menus of French restaurants actually come from Poland or Romania, According to Yves Détraigne, a French senator.
"Among the 30,000 tonnes of snails consumed in our country each year, only 800 to 1,000 tonnes are produced by 250 to 300 French snail farmers, who guarantee consumers true quality in terms of taste and hygiene," Détraigne reportedly wrote in a letter to the French ministry of agriculture in 2013.
But all may not be lost for the snail farmers of France, says Robert Cowie, a research professor who studies snails and other creatures at the University of Hawaii. For one thing, he says, climate is on the farmers' side.
"The New Guinea flatworm doesn't do well in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Farenheit), and even in the south of France, winter temperatures drop consistently below that," he tells The Salt. "I don't see it as a major threat to France, but given the effects of global warming, the potential northward expansion of their global range is quite possible."
To date, no other P. manokwari have been sighted in France since the first cagey worm was spotted last fall. Even so, Winsor is encouraging snail farmers throughout the country to quarantine their precious escargot.