In the past week or so that MH370 has been missing I’ve read all sorts of stories about the disappearance of MH370. Some are entertaining conspiracy tales and others much more serious takes on what may have happened written by actual industry pros. And more than a few have called for wholesale changes in the way aircraft operate and are tracked around the world. The quip about “If I can find my iPhone anywhere in the world why can’t I find a huge airplane” has been used far too often. But what if the takeaway lesson here is not that we need major changes to the way aircraft are tracked?
Between MH370 and AF447 there have been calls to revolutionize the tracking of aircraft. Many want to live stream black box data to the ground rather than only have it on-board. And the technology is there to have that work. But it is not cheap. Bandwidth in the sky is still expensive today, particularly for global overwater coverage. And pushing the full set of black box observations in real time would use up a decent amount of that bandwidth. Early in 2015 the skies will see a constellation of Ka-band satellite global coverage which should bring the costs down to a more reasonable level, but that’s still a ways away and I’m also still not convinced it is necessary.
If we scale back to asking for only basic location/velocity data and scale back the sample rate then the costs become more reasonable. But what does that get us more than we already have today? Why not simply configure the radar transponder to not allow it to be permanently disabled? Doesn’t that accomplish nearly the same thing with virtually no overhead costs? Why are we talking about whole new systems and reinventing the tracking process when all the bits already exist pretty much as we need them?
Of course, that’s only tracking location, not all the vital signs from the aircraft. Do we need all that data on the ground all the time? I’m still inclined to say no. Certainly not without considering the costs to aggregate and manage it. Plus, as the frequency of the data polling or transmission is decreased (saving on bandwidth costs) the value of the data similarly decreases. If you’re only getting data every 5 minutes then it would be possible to miss the entirety of a major catastrophic event. The failures in AF447 occurred in roughly a 4 minute window. A transmission at 2:10:00am UTC would have shown all systems at “normal” settings and 5 minutes later the aircraft had already crashed.
I’m not some heartless asshat who doesn’t care what happened to the plane or who thinks that the families of the passengers and crew should suffer needlessly with a lack of information or, even worse, misinformation. But I also do not think that massive adjustments to the processes and systems are what get us to better data as a whole. In short, I’m mostly surprised that so many are calling for such drastic changes in the way aircraft tracking is handled today. It seems to me that a few rather simple adjustments would net very similar results at a fraction of the cost. And likely with equally sufficient utility.
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