In a world where people on opposite sides of the planet communicate with a swipe of their index finger or a jab of their thumb on the many gadgets that modern technology has gifted humanity, the concept of instantaneous information and location is often a given. So when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 spontaneously vanished and the combined efforts of eight countries proved basically fruitless after 9 days of investigation, the world was left wondering how a modern mystery like this was still possible in an age of such expansive surveillance and communication technology.
Even when there seemed to be news or progress, it was often just proof of how little the authorities knew about the plane and its whereabouts. Potential oil leaks, crash debris, eye witnesses, satellite images and military radar detection all conflated in a totally contradictory manner and led to the investigation looking like a lost child wandering around helpless in their search for the mother figure of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. For the most part, all it amounted to was desperate speculation in a misguided attempt to maintain the façade that modern technology is infallible.
Yet what this tragic event has taught us is that modern technology is most definitely not infallible. Remarkably, despite the power of current communication methods, the technology for tracking planes can be quite inefficient and outdated. A black box (which is actually orange to make it easier to see) is installed in every cockpit with the sole purpose of recording the flight. The recordings can provide valuable information on the possible causes of plane crashes or complications. However, the voice recorder within the black box continually records over itself and only retains the final two hours of the flight, the minimal amount required by law. An old school cassette tape would do a similar, or maybe even a better job.
What the black box does that a cassette would not be able to do, though, is emit a signal or a “ping” when submerged in water that can be picked up by a microphone and signal analyzer. However, the “pinger” on the voice recorder is powered by batteries and as such will only last for a limited amount of time, while its range is only a few miles. It does not float and is only about the size of a shoe box – a miniscule target in the blue depths of the world. The black box on Flight 370 will supposedly last for a mere 30 days, as for some reason it had not been updated to the current 90 day range required. Again, this technology seems extremely outdated and inefficient in light of what is possible in other areas of technology and surveillance.
Indeed, revelations of various intrusions into personal privacy by international security services and the omnipresent nature of all forms of recording devices in everyday life have made it increasingly hard to evade the reaches of modern technology and the eyes of the world. The consequences of such invasive surveillance can be quite frightening, particularly given how helpless people are to stop such practices. Thus the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers and crew, all with access to some sort of digital communication device, can be viewed, in a certain light, as strangely reassuring. It is a symbol which means modern mysteries are still possible and proves that there are still limitations to the surveillance powers of modern technology. This in no way detracts from the fact that such an incident is unquestionably a terrible and harrowing experience for everyone involved and lessons should be learned to avoid anything similar happening in the future.
There had been calls for improvements in the “black box” technology and design from France after the disappearance of the Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The black box from that flight was not found until two years later, at the bottom of the ocean and the information on the recordings did provide a reasonable understanding of the reasons for the crash, as a combination of human and computer error. However, it was this which led to the increase in the battery life of the “pinger” from 30 to 90 days, although this seems a relatively minor improvement given the small range of the signal in comparison to the vastness of the oceans.
There have been various aviation mysteries over the years, the most famous probably being the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the various flights which have ended somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the earth but it was only last year that scientists claimed they had found the remains of her aircraft using sonar readings. The Bermuda Triangle has proved even more elusive in providing answers with only theories of paranormal or alien intervention to its name. In comparison to these mysteries and the case of the Air France flight, the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 appears remarkably short lived. However, even between 2009 and the present year there have been great technological advancements and it is hard to believe that these have been so thoroughly lacking in the world of aviation. The reality is that the technology is available; it is just not being adopted or used to further methods of flight surveillance and recovery.
The Malaysian government has come out and said that it must be assumed the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 ended in the Southern Indian Ocean while Australia has stated the search for debris has been delayed for 24 hours due to bad weather. Yet these assumptions by the Malaysian government are vague and, at the moment, unsubstantiated, with China demanding to see the relevant satellite data. It is unsurprising that many people desperate for very different news on the subject are reluctant to accept such assertions and it is certainly a little pre-emptive to class the mystery of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as solved. What can be taken from this entire episode is the pointed reminder that while the world is wrapped firmly in the invisible wires of modern technology, humanity’s dominance of the planet is not yet complete. Indeed, the fact it was possible for the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to go undetected for so long means that mysteries are still possible even in this modern technological era. However, with recent developments the relatives of the passengers will hopefully receive more concrete answers and the mystery of the missing jetliner will soon be solved, although at the moment many questions still remain unanswered.
By Rhona Scullion