Airlines ponder better plane tracking in wake of Malaysian Airlines jet disappearance

A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777

First off, let’s get this straight — there is technology that could track planes worldwide over land and sea although — clearly– it won’t rely on cell towers and would only work if it could not be shut off or otherwise obstructed. Possible options for tracking planes have come under increased scrutiny since the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on March 8.

Some options include following the aircraft by VHF radio over land or by satellite over water. Some are recommending the installation of on-board recorders that eject in case of a crash then float and send for help, according to USA Today. the hurdle up till now has been expense. Some say equipping aircraft for round-the-globe tracking would cost several hundred thousands of dollars in gear.

But, Kenneth Hylander, acting CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation told the paper that “satellite communications, navigation and surveillance systems also represent efficient ways of tracking aircraft, especially over water.”

Such systems are already readily available, even to consumers. For instance, Globalstar sells a product called Spot that essentially leaves a digital breadcrumb trial of GPS coordinates through SMS messages sent through through Globalstar’s satellite network. Globalstar’s constellation covers most of the world — the exceptions being the poles and southeastern Africa and India — and there are other globes-spanning satellite networks as well, notably Iridium and OrbComm.

As the mystery of Flight 370’s fate continues, discussions about doing more to follow aircraft have heated up —  as also happened after the crash of Air France flight 447 into the Atlantic five years ago. Last week, two former National Transportation Board members, one of whom is a retired U.S. Air Force general, said there should be a way for aircraft to send location data snippets at least to “a cloud” — basically putting a portion of the information typically held in the aircraft’s black box outside for others to examine as needed. That data could help narrow the search field in the event of a crash or disappearance.

Kevin Fitchard contributed to this report.



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