The pervasiveness of consumer technology that can track our every move has left some people scratching their heads as to why something so much more technically advanced, like the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 people, could just disappear from the sky.
Experts say the technology used to track an airplane like the Boeing 777 is state of the art, and leaps and bounds more sophisticated than anything you’ll find in a consumer device. But it could have the same weakness that consumer technology has.
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“GPS and tracking devices only work if they’re turned on or if they’re not destroyed,” said Scott Hamilton, aviation analyst for the consulting firm Leeham Co.
No one yet knows what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Hamilton said it’s possible the pilot or someone else turned off the transponder, or that the plane was destroyed in a sudden, violent event that also knocked out the tracking system.
There are also secondary radar systems, but Hamilton said those have some dead zones, particularly over large bodies of water.
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William McCabe, president of the aviation safety consultancy The McCabe Group, said it’s very rare in the modern era for air traffic controllers and others not to know exactly where an aircraft is at all times, because of the overlapping technologies and procedures designed to make flying safe.
“It’s hard to know why that stopped,” he said. “Normally you can track an airplane extremely precisely, much more than a car.”
Still, there has been some discussion about augmenting existing technology with even more advanced systems, such as technology that would transmit in real time all the detailed information experts usually find in a black box long after the catastrophic event.
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McCabe said that for now, such technology is quite expensive and may seem cost prohibitive given all the other technology that is used to track aircrafts’ whereabouts—and all the other costs associated with running profitable airplanes.
“What is the likelihood that whatever data is there would be needed on all those airplanes flying?” he said. “It turns out, one of the thousands of airplanes in the sky that day needed it.”