“YESTERDAY, 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, Angus Houston, the man in charge of finding the plane, said, “We haven’t found anything anywhere.”
The more than 50-day operation, which the 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 solution to these problems is simple: We need new satellite technology. And it’s 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 three pounds; 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…”