Tech and the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane

As the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane continues, questions persist about how in this day and technological age the plane could go undetected for so long. But it’s not for lack of trying. For example, a U.S. satellite company is getting plenty of coverage for its role in the effort to find Flight 370 and its 239 passengers.

DigitalGlobe on Monday launched a crowdsourcing campaign on its Tomnod platform, and has since gotten so many visitors that its servers crashed. Tomnod is back online, and the Colorado company says the couple of million volunteers who so far have tagged hundreds of thousands of features on images (made possible by the five satellites the company has orbiting the Earth) have made the campaign its largest ever. Other campaigns DigitalGlobe has been involved in include a search for Nina, a ship that last year went missing off the coast of Australia, according to Wired.

After the Flight 370 crash, “we have millions of people on our website, looking pixel by pixel, for anything out of place.” Shay Har-Noy, director of product development at DigitalGlobe, told Bloomberg Television.

A couple of other tech-related tidbits about the search:

Some people have reportedly tried to use Google Maps to try to find the plane, but have been told those map images are old and aren’t transmitted in real time.

What about GPS? It reportedly isn’t used by planes in the same way we do. An aviation safety analyst told NPR: “Airlines do use GPS systems for navigation, but GPS signals are not used in the transmission from the emergency locator transmitters.”

So what does transmit information from an airplane to others? The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777’s onboard monitoring system sent live data to the system’s manufacturer, which in this case is Rolls-Royce, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper¬†reports that the engine data suggests the plane, which was headed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, flew for five hours on March 8 before it disappeared from the radar and lost radio contact. Malaysian officials say the WSJ report is wrong, and Rolls-Royce has had no comment.


Photo: Passengers look at a Malaysian Airlines plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, Thursday. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing March 8. (Mak Remissa/EPA)


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