EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of this article’s writing, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is still underway. Hopefully it will have been found by the time of publication, but the GPS issues raised by the tragedy are relevant whatever the outcome.
As people around the world watch, naval forces from numerous countries comb the ocean around Vietnam for any trace of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. There have been several false hopes of success, as searchers found unrelated bits of debris and oil remnants floating on the water. As the days wear on with virtually no developments, those who know something of modern technology can’t help but ask: why hasn’t GPS capability allowed us to find the plane right away?
No Signal to Follow
GPS is an incredible tool that has given law enforcement and military agencies the ability to quickly locate countless lost people and items. But, like most technology, it depends on a human action for it to work correctly: turning it on. If a GPS tracker is deliberately disabled or simply not turned on through neglect, it is useless. Early knowledge of the Malaysia Airlines situation suggests that the plane’s official GPS signal was lost abruptly during the flight, whether due to an accident or sabotage. Thus, the most accurate data can only show the last reported location of the plane. How far it traveled after the GPS signal disappeared is an open question at this point.
Other GPS Sources
It’s extremely likely that the GPS unit installed on the plane was not the only device on board with GPS capability. With over 200 passengers aboard, we can assume that scores of GPS-enabled cell phones, tablets, and computers could theoretically broadcast a tracking signal. In fact, this possibility seemed likely when family members were startled to see that their lost loved ones appeared to be logged in to social media accounts. The information was given to government officials, but does not seem to have resulted in finding a usable GPS signal broadcast by personal devices.
According to experts, an explosion in midair or a plane crash in the ocean would probably have made it impossible for the devices on board to beam a GPS signal that would reach satellites. Even if a cell phone survived the crash intact, once under water it would not be able to get its signal out. As reliable as GPS navigation seems to us during normal use, all it takes is loss of signal due to a tunnel or skyscrapers on either side to remind us that it has some very real limitations. The apparent online activity of lost passengers following the plane’s disappearance is difficult to explain, but if it was the result of people using their personal devices, we can assume that a number of GPS signals would have allowed officials to triangulate their exact location.
What Could Have Helped
Hindsight is always 20/20, and there is no shortage of experts (some self-proclaimed) identifying the available technologies that may have been able to save the plane, or at least provide more useful information about what happened after the GPS signal disappeared over the ocean. Here are a few of those options:
|Secondary radar||Backup to standard radar tracking||Doesn’t always work over large ocean areas|
|Expanded “black box” technology||Would theoretically send real-time updates on plane’s vital signs during a flight||Extremely expensive to install and operate|
Expense is the largest single reason that airlines have not upgraded tracking technology. In developed countries like the U.S., government regulations dramatically raise the cost of testing and implementing new devices. Rather than paying these high costs, airlines rely on sometimes outdated methods. In less developed countries, the situation can be even worse, as airlines have less money to work with in the first place.
Back to the Basic Problem
Whatever equipment is aboard a plane, it is subject to failure if it depends on the action of human operators in order to work properly. In a disturbing reminder of the possibility of human failure, two men were able to board the Malaysia Airlines flight using passports that did not belong to them without being stopped. Officials now believe that the two men were not terrorists, but the lapse in security raises the question of what other policies (perhaps related to GPS devices) were not followed as the flight progressed.
Is more automation the answer? A computer “glitch” is always a possibility, but the chances of malfunction are far, far smaller if human unpredictability is removed from the equation. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, it is likely that in the weeks and months to come, we will see a call for upgraded flight tracking, probably centered on making GPS more reliable.