We tend to think that modern technology such as GPS and Facebook is all powerful and knowing, and can track us wherever we go. If we call 911 in our car, GPS satellites can tell the operator where help is needed. Passengers on airlines can see maps that show where they are during their trip. Get onto Wifi on your smart phone, and Google can figure out if you are in Phoenix or Tokyo. It will even give you suggestions on where you should eat, based upon which city you’re in.
But for all of these amazing technological leaps, at this time, the world cannot locate Malaysia Flight 370, which disappeared this past weekend on a five hour flight from Malaysia to Beijing.
What About Radar?
Most people know that air traffic controllers use radar to keep tabs on an aircraft, but radar has a limited range. Once a plane is out at sea, radar cannot track it. So, pilots stay in contact by radio most of the time. In between such check in’s, the controller only has a general idea of where that plane is.
The AP said this week that Flight 370 could have been in contact with military radar before it disappeared. The transponder signal disappeared just as the aircraft was to enter air space in Vietnam. That technology works in concert with radar. So, this suggests that the plane may have been close enough to shore to be on a radar screen somewhere.
Did Someone Shut Off the Transponder?
We do not know. Pilots can send coded messages by the transponder in an emergency. But it is not clear what happened to the transponder here.
There was no distress signal sent. So, there was not time to ask for help during a technical crisis on the plane, or during a terrorist attack. It does not seem likely that someone would have time to do anything to the transponder during an attempt to take over the plane.
Can Cell Phones Be Tracked?
Sure they can – on land, as most of us experience every day. But there are no cell phone towers in the middle of the ocean. This could change in the future – new technology allows using cellular networks if a plane is carrying a special base station that sends signals to a commercial satellite.
What About Wifi?
That would have helped in this case. Mobile devices on the plane would have been connected online right up to whatever happened. But Malaysia Airlines does not offer in flight Wifi yet.
The FAA wants to have a new air traffic control system that will use GPS satellites to track where planes are, but this new system is years away. In the mean time, we can only speculate with our limited technology what happened to Flight 370, and hope for the best for all on board.