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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MHY370 and ADS-B

00:41, 8 March: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Saturday, 8 March (16:41 GMT, 7 March), and was due to arrive in Beijing at 06:30 (22:30 GMT).
Malaysia Airlines says the plane lost contact less than an hour after takeoff. No distress signal or message was sent.
01:07: The plane sent its last ACARS transmission - a service that allows computers aboard the plane to "talk" to computers on the ground. Some time afterwards, it was silenced and the expected 01:37 transmission was not sent.
01:19: The last communication between the plane and Malaysian air traffic control took place about 12 minutes later.
 Map showing the timings of electronic handshakes with flight MH370

The raw horror of the ordinary transformed into a ghoulish tragedy of disappearance, though the 239 souls who mysteriously departed an airport in Malaysia en route to another airport, expecting to arrive at their China destination in a routine flight, lingers still. The anguish of the bereaved families has not diminished, the mystery of the flight's disappearance remains unresolved. It is as though the reality within which we live simply slipped into a time warp, engulfing the plane, its 227 passengers and dozen crew members, allowing time itself to forget all about them.

Seven months later, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370's whereabouts remain undiscovered, the Boeing 777 slipped the sullen bonds of Earth to land in some otherworld unknown to civilization, and where their families hope they may find comfort and security and live on, however impossible it is to visualize. From there, they can continue to visit their loved ones in dreams where they appear as they had before their disappearance, whole, happy and completely natural.

Where they really are, or whatever remains of the airliner and its occupants, is not yet known, and may never be revealed, reflecting the failure up to now, despite the frantic collaboration of many countries lending their most advanced technologies, aircraft and ships to ply the oceans, near and distant, where it was assumed the flight might have ended. If it happened once, it will happen again; it has happened before, and promises repeat performances, but perhaps from this time forward the mystery will be missing.
The southern Indian Ocean pictured at 500 feet above sea level
The southern Indian Ocean pictured at 500 feet above sea level. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

Ottawa-based NavCanada has announced a global emergency tracking system capable of ensuring that the horror that visited the Malaysian Airlines flight will never again result in complete absence of recovery. The tracking system is a service to be offered free to authorized rescue agencies worldwide, to be initiated in 2018. The potential for saving lives is enormous, let alone the agony, time and cost involved in search, rescue and recovery.

NavCanada, a not-for-profit private Ottawa company which manages Canada's commercial airspace has signed up to a joint venture with U.S. Iridium Communications Inc; the venture's purpose: to improve immeasurably the capability of tracking airlines in remote airspace. "The existing gaps in surveillance, particularly in cases of lost aircraft became abundantly clear this past year. The tragic disappearance of MH370 prompted a worldwide urgency to look for solutions. Aireon's response amounts to a global public service offering Aireon ALERT universally and on a no-fee basis", explained John Crichton, president and CEO of NavCanada.

Over 75% of Earth's surface remains invisible to air traffic controllers. The tragedy of MH370, and the 2009 Air France flight 447 crash before it have emphasized the need for a no-fee, global emergency tracking service. Radar coverage fades as flights turn out over oceans and mountain ranges. The use of high-frequency radio for communication -- procedural control, becomes the contact medium for pilots and controllers.

But this mode of contact doesn't permit real-time position tracking, not until the flight reaches airspace where radar-contact can be resumed, closer to land and to radar-tracking stations. An alternative is seen in the use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology where planes equipped with it are capable of determining their positions and can broadcast the data to air traffic ground control stations periodically. But it too has limitations, because it is ground-based.

Enter ADS-B sensors, to be placed aboard low-Earth orbit Iridium satellites, some 66 in total, to enable global, real-time airliner tracking, themselves equipped with operational ADS-B transponders. Aireon will be capable of tracking one thousand active targets within an airspace held to be two thousand nautical miles in diameter. More efficient and precise routing will result, with NavCanada estimating cost savings on North Atlantic routes alone to the value of $125-million a year in fuel.

"The Aireon system solves the problem, there's world-wide coverage. It's a real game-changer", stated Mr. Crichton. Next year, the first of Iridium's second-generation satellites with ADS-B sensor payloads will be launched with the full constellation in place by late 2017, operational the year following. Mystery solved? Not quite. Technology is wonderful, giving humankind various advanced tools to manipulate toward safety and security.

But MH370 had been equipped with an ADS-B transponder Most commercial aircraft flying oceanic routes are, even while such transponders will eventually be mandatory on all commercial airliners in the near future. For some unknown reason, compounding the mystery of its disappearance, the transponder on MH370 had stopped functioning. Most experts in the field feel confident in stating that human intervention was involved; that it was deliberately tampered with.

"That issue is still there. The airlines and the pilots' unions have got to sort that one out. There are solutions to that", said Mr. Crichton. Solutions such as tamper-proofing all transponders in the future. Which still, of necessity leaves the lingering mysteries surrounding that doomed flight: Why? and How? And above all, Where?

Graphic: Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER

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