The missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370: Is technology the weakest link in air transport safety?

While the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has spawned a variety of speculations--from midair disintegration to falling victim to a terrorist act and even a UFO hijacking--technology appears to be the weakest link as far as locating the aircraft is concerned.

"The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society," writes Stephen Trimble in The Guardian. He is an author and journalist on aviation issues in Washington DC, where he manages the Americas bureau of the Flightglobal news and data services company. "Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner - perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport - still exists in the age of radio."

The Boeing 777 (MH370) disappeared from radar screens just 40 minutes into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was last detected over the seas between Malaysia and Vietnam, according to reports.

"You can send and receive text messages from most aircraft, surf the web and even stream House of Cards," he further adds. "The system that powers the plane is limited to pre-dial-up internet connection speeds."

"There is simply no datalink onboard an aircraft with the bandwidth to continuously stream the volumes of data collected and stored during every second of a flight by the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder."

"The result is a dangerous silence in the immediate and sometimes extended aftermath of what appears to be the worst airline crash in more than a decade. In the absence of data, the biological temptation to seek patterns within the flimsiest of available evidence is overwhelming."

Need for new technology to make air transport safer

While people are still hoping for a miracle and search and rescue operations are on, the mystery of the Malaysian flight 370 will remain unsolved until its wreckage is found (and the black box in the wreckage recovered), and no one knows how much time that could take.

According to Trimble, "there are technologies in existence or development today that can address this glaring gap in the aviation safety net".

Since an aircraft's black box gathers and store megabytes worth of flight data every second, it is not advisable to transmit all that heavy information by satellite or radio transmission. However, a processor connected to the black box could be installed that can select a subset of the most relevant data and relay it to the ground, suggests Trimble.

He says that Boeing has filed a recent patent application that describes such a system. This system might be costly but benefits outweigh the costs as human lives are at stake.

"Critical safety data could provide clues of system or structural failures much faster, making the entire air transport system safer," he says.

He surely has a point.

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