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The world has witnessed two airplanes this year alone which went missing while en-route to their destination. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared en-route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8th March while AirAsia (also Malaysian) flight QZ8501 disappeared on a flight to Singapore recently. Authorities have not yet been able to locate both planes despite the modern technology. So what makes it so difficult to track a missing airplane?
According to experts, even the best technology cannot help to locate a downed plane immediately. You need to understand the communication system between airplane and controllers on the ground to understand the problem in the technology.
The airplane has a device installed on it called transponder which alerts air traffic control on the ground about the plane’s location and altitude. Radars on ground send a signal saying ‘Who are you?’ and the aircraft sends a signal back with its identity information using that transponder. Additionally, pilots and air traffic control personnel can send messages to each other digitally.
Now if the transponder is not responding then the first thing done is to look for unidentified signals on radar to see if the plane might still be in air. Transponders usually don’t respond if they are disabled either by someone on board or due to a crash.
If the plane cannot be located through unidentified signals, then it is most likely that the plane crashed which is when emergency beacon comes into play. Emergency beacon transmits signal through contacting a satellite or sending a message on radio waves only if it is not hindered by the plane wreckage. The beacons have been helpful in the past for crashes that were on land.
There was a key piece of equipment installed on Flight MH730 that allowed to ping a satellite even after the transponder was disabled. This enabled authorities to find out that MH370 flew for hours after the transponder was disabled and likely crashed in the Indian Ocean. However, this equipment was not available on Flight QZ8501 which has made things more difficult for authorities.
If nothing else works, the search team use underwater microphones to see if they can hear a ping from the plane’s black boxes. These blackboxes have 30 day underwater locater pinger which allow a ship to locate airplanes more easily. However, these pings have limited range and with increased depth the ping can be difficult to listen.
The GPS system in the aircraft can help track its own location but it does not allow others to track the airplane.
Due to recent missing plane events, it seems a little more advanced technology needs to be developed to avoid such unfortunate events in future.