It's been seven months since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 but to date, no traces of the passengers aboard the plane have yet been found. The seemingly endless hunt for the doomed MH370 has prompted aviation experts to mull on technological advances that could potentially improve tracking of missing aircraft.
On Oct. 7, international aviation experts met in Washington for a conference initiated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) amid continued search for the missing Malaysian airplane in a remote Indian Ocean region. Potential solutions for finding and tracking lost aircraft, particularly those that crash into the ocean, had been proposed during the conference.
Locating commercial aircraft that crash and go missing over land masses is relatively easy but finding planes that crash into the ocean is far more difficult and the vastness of open water is largely to blame.
"It's like an ant in a football field," said Jules Jaffe of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It's just a different way of thinking underwater. People think on land how they can see 100 miles. In the deep ocean, if you can see 100 feet you're doing pretty good."
In the case of the Air France flight that went down into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, for instance, it took investigators two years before they found the plane's black box on the ocean floor, highlighting the difficulties involved in finding evidence crucial for investigations in large bodies of water
NTSB is tackling the challenges involved in locating crash sites in the ocean. Aviation experts are looking at fixes on the automatic dependent surveillance (ADS-B), which the missing airplane used and allowed land-based radio towers to monitor the plane's movement. By allowing tracking by satellite, coverage can be increased to include remote areas such as the Indian Ocean.
The ADS-B also allows streaming of different types of messages such as information on the status of the plane's engine and fuel levels. Boeing's Accident Investigator Mark Smith proposed imprinting the location of the plane on the messages sent from the cockpit. Streaming data that are stored on the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder during flights is also considered.
Cockpit voice recorders currently retain between one to two hours of conversation and aviation experts mull on extending this to 20 hours. There were also suggestions to increase the battery life of the black box pinger, which begins to transmit sound when the device hits the water, from 30 to 90 days.
Using a type of black box used in some military aircraft was also proposed. The box separates from the airplane when it hits the water, floats and sends an emergency signal.