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Searching for a flash drive in the sea

Published on Apr 30, 2014 2:18 PM
The Sentinel-1A satellite lifting off aboard a rocket designed in Soviet Russia in the 1960s, from Kourou, French Guiana, earlier this month. Technology for communicating from the sky is stuck in the 1970s. The problem starts not with planes, but with the satellites that track them. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

On Sunday, the aerial search for floating debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was called off, and an underwater search based on possible locator beacon signals was completed without success. Although efforts to find the missing aircraft have not been abandoned, Mr Angus Houston, the man in charge of finding the plane, said: "We haven't found anything anywhere."

The more than 50-day operation, which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott calls "probably the most difficult search in human history", highlights a big technology gap. We live in the age of what I once called "the Internet of Things", where everything from cars to bathroom scales to Crock-Pots can be connected to the Internet, but somehow, airplane data systems are barely connected to anything.

Investigators discovered Flight 370's path into the Indian Ocean using an unorthodox analysis of data from the plane's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or Acars, which was invented in the 1970s and is based on telex, an almost century-old ancestor of text messaging made essentially obsolete by fax machines.

That aircraft system was not designed for locating planes. The black box flight data recorders that are the focus of the search for Flight 370 are little more than super-tough memory sticks with locator beacons. When so much is connected to the Internet, why is the aerospace industry using technology that predates fax machines to look for flash drives in the sea?

Because, while technology for communicating from the ground has advanced rapidly in the last 40 years, technology for communicating from the sky has been stuck in the 1970s.

The problem starts not with planes, but with the satellites that track them. The Sentinel-1A satellite, for example, weighs around 2,500kg, costs around US$400 million (S$503 million) and was launched on a rocket designed in Soviet Russia in the 1960s. The Sentinel can store the same amount of data as seven iPhones. When was this relic from the age of mainframe computers sent into orbit? On April 3. Huge, expensive, rocket-launched satellites with little computing power may make sense for broadcasting, where one satellite sends one signal to lots of things (such as television sets) but they are generally too expensive and not intelligent enough to be part of the Internet, where lots of things (such as airplanes) would send lots of signals to one satellite.

This is why most satellites reflect TV signals, take pictures of the Earth, or send the signals that drive GPS systems. It is also the reason airplanes cannot stream flight and location data like they stream vapour trails: Cellphone and Wi-Fi signals do not reach the ground from 30,000ft, so airplanes need to be able to send information to satellites - satellites that, as well as being unable to handle network data economically, are designed to talk to rotating, dish-shaped antennas that would be impossible to retrofit to airplanes.

The solution to these problems is simple: We need new satellite technology. And it is arriving. Wealthy private investors and brilliant young engineers are dragging satellites into the 21st century with inventions including "flocks" of "nanosatellites" that weigh as little as 1.36kg; flat, thin antennas built from advanced substances called "metamaterials"; and "beamforming," which steers radio signals using software.

On Jan 9, a San Francisco-based start-up called Planet Labs sent a flock of 28 nanosatellites into space. The first application for this type of technology is taking pictures of the Earth, but it could also be used to receive data streaming from aircraft retrofitted with those new, flat "metamaterial" antennas. There are many other possible systems. Dozens of new satellite technologies are emerging, with countless ways to combine them. Streaming data from planes is about to become cheap and easy.

The satellite revolution is not just about airplanes. Venture capitalist David Cowan, who is on the board of Skybox Imaging, a manufacturer of 100kg "microsatellites", calls the big picture "planetary awareness". Combining data from sensors on satellite networks with information from things like phones, cars and planes will give us a comprehensive, constantly updating picture of the world. Everybody will be able to see everything from crops growing to traffic jamming to armies invading to icecaps melting. Vanishing airplanes will be a thing of the past.

Today's big aerospace companies may not embrace this revolution unprompted. Seeing satellites as network computers and airplanes as nodes that communicate with them requires a new mindset. Airlines, airplane makers and regulators are feeling perplexed and defensive about the public outcry over their inability to know where their planes are and whether something is wrong with them.

One industry insider told me, "There's no cost-effective justification for streaming data from aircraft. What would you do if you had the information?" One of the many things you would do: You would never again put the families of 239 people though an agony of uncertainty as you searched for an airplane that flew itself for hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea.