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Tech is out there to track jets

- Airlines use knowhow to provide Wi-Fi, not to locate black boxes

March 21: Airlines routinely use satellites to provide Wi-Fi for passengers. But for years they have failed to use a similar technology for a far more basic task: tracking planes and their black-box flight recorders.

Long before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8, the global airline industry had sophisticated tools in hand to follow planes in real time and stream data from their flight recorders. But for a variety of reasons, mostly involving cost and how infrequently planes crash, neither the airlines nor their regulators adopted them.

One of the haunting questions about Flight 370 — how authorities could lose track of a Boeing 777 jetliner in age when an iPhone can be located in moments — persisted yesterday as Australian officials said satellite cameras had spotted objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean that might be parts of the missing airliner.

Authorities counselled caution about the sighting, however, and the first Royal Australian Air Force plane to fly over the estimated location of the objects returned to base without spotting anything that fit the description — a reminder of how baffling the hunt for the missing jetliner has been.

The idea of tracking airplanes in flight or using deployable black boxes that can broadcast their location via satellites has been around for many years and gained attention after an Air France jet crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009; it took investigators two years to locate the black boxes, 3km underwater. But the disappearance of the Malaysian plane and improvements in satellite technology could provide a new impetus to track planes more closely, experts said.

“The technology is out there, but it’s just a question of political will to recognise this is important,” said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired Air Force major general.

Military airplanes and helicopters used in offshore exploration have flight-data recorders that can eject with a parachute in a crash. They emit a satellite signal that immediately transmits the aircraft’s identity and location. But adding an ejection system on a commercial jet would require expensive redesign.

As the hunt for the Malaysian jet turns to the Indian Ocean, investigators will seek to recover the plane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

Generally referred to as the black box, these systems are in fact painted bright orange so they can be spotted easily.

They record hundreds of flight parameters for 25 hours, as well as up to two hours of pilot communications and cockpit sounds.

They are built to survive crashes, withstand fires with temperatures in excess of 1,093 degrees Celsius for more than an hour, and survive in water depths of 6,096 metres for 30 days.

They are equipped with beacons that transmit ultrasonic pulses every second the moment they come in contact with water.

But while the technology has proved invaluable in countless accidents, the flight recorders must first be recovered to be of any use.

“It is shocking to find ourselves in the same situation of not being able to locate an airplane,” said Robert Soulas, who lost his daughter and son-in-law in the Air France crash.