How commercial aviation technology is preventing another MH370
Five years ago, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean carrying 239 people and undoubtedly became the most elusive mystery in the history of missing flights. Of the numerous theories surrounding the incident, none have established a concrete cause for the flight’s disappearance.
Three countries—Malaysia, Australia and China—spent around $151 million searching over 441,000 miles of the Indian Ocean for MH370. Although this operation ended in January 2017, the Malaysian government-commissioned Ocean Infinity, an American seabed intelligence company, to continue the search until May 2018. Even with the company’s fleet of AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle), which can operate in water as deep as 6000 meters, the extended search had inconclusive results.
The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) convened in Montreal, Canada, and held a Multidisciplinary Meeting on Global Flight Tracking after MH370 vanished over the Indian Ocean.
ICAO announced its guidelines for commercial aircraft in March 2016 and coined its three-point-plan the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS).
Aircraft Tracking, which became applicable to commercial aircraft across the globe in November 2018, is the first component of GADSS and mandated the installation of a satellite tracking system capable of pinging an airplane’s location every 15 minutes. This system is said to activate once a commercial flight enters oceanic airspace—which is any area over water 12 or more nautical miles from the border of a country—regardless of whether or not the plane is in distress. Although this is a requirement, the ICAO also recommends that operators update the location of their aircraft throughout the course of the flight, even over land.
“You can see that the idea is to make sure that someone, somewhere knows where this aircraft is at least every 15 minutes,” Ian Knowles, Technical Officer of Operations with the ICAO, said during a livestream on Youtube in September of this year.
The agency is also pushing for the implementation of Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT), the second concept proposed in GADSS, by 2021. ADT will reduce pinging time from 15 minutes to every minute after an aircraft detects distress. According to Time, ADT is triggered by “turbulence, mechanical difficulties or an unexplained change in course, such as during a hijacking or if the crew became unconscious.”
ICAO is a normative agency, which means they are not involved in the implementation of standards for commercial aviation. In the United States, this responsibility falls onto the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd., an aeronautics company based out of Calgary, Canada, developed what they have coined an Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) that has the same functionality as the ICAO’s ADT technology but features an even faster 20-second ping. Tom Schmutz, CEO of the company, confirmed during their quarter 3 press conference on Nov. 27 that the $60,000 technology has been installed on 2,600 aircraft
According to a FLYHT press release from Nov. 25, 2019, the company recently received an investment of almost $6.7 million to fund the development of new technology. If the FAA implements the ICAO’s guidelines as law, companies like FLYHT will continue to grow by providing the technology needed for commercial airlines to operate lawfully.
FLYHT has minimal competition because of the company’s “heavily patented” technology. Despite the FLYHT’s many competitors—which include the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)—in developing satellite communication and GPS tracking technologies, others are working to develop health monitoring systems for commercial aircraft. According to Transparency Market Research, some of these companies include Bombardier, Airbus, Ventura Aerospace, EADS, AIRMAN, Infosys, ASTYANAX and more.
“So from the time that airline starts flying to the time that information is issued back… depending on the airline, that could be [anywhere from] three days [to] three weeks.” Schmutz told me over the phone. “FLYHT’s take is to change that information cycle into three seconds, so we monitor the aircraft in real-time.”
What makes the health monitoring systems developed by FLYHT different from those of other companies is their immediate accessibility. Airplanes undergo an array of service checks throughout their lifetime. According to Forbes, A-checks occur every 500 flying hours — making this method of service the fastest out of those available. Although A-checks are “the least invasive,” they can take days to process.
Charlie Schumacher has been an analyst at Gateway Investor Relations, an American strategic consulting company that “connects compelling companies with top institutional investors and analysts,” since 2018. Schumacher and colleague Matt Glover helped to organize the multi-million dollar investment recently acquired by FLYHT.
“Let’s say you discover that there’s an issue with the engine that needs to be addressed, but you’re planning to land somewhere where you don’t have the resources to be able to address it in that location,” Schumacher prompted. “FLYHT can tell you in real time if something’s going on—and if so—where to land the aircraft [and] how to address [the issue].”
Although the proposed ICAO guidelines don’t cover health monitoring technologies on commercial flights, GADSS in its own right has the potential to decrease the margin of error that permitted the disappearance of MH370. Using the final, ill-fated journey of the missing flight as an example, we can analyze the functionality of the standards set forth by the ICAO and how they could change the future of aviation.
The most widely believed theory surrounding MH370’s unsolved disappearance turns our attention to the 53-year-old pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Experts and media outlets alike concluded that the only way MH370 could have crashed was purposeful, after any potential malfunctions of the aircraft were ruled out. Shah had a home flight simulator he recorded himself using and uploaded those videos online. He also frequently engaged in aviation and pilot forums.
Coverage of the mystery alludes to Shah’s deteriorating mental state. While it still hasn’t been confirmed that the pilot was clinically depressed, many media outlets have attempted to justify the loneliness he experienced weeks before MH370 was wheels up. Shah was awaiting a divorce from his wife, who claimed he “‘retreated into a shell’ weeks before” the flight disappeared. One of Shah’s friends corroborated the family’s claims of the pilot’s growing isolation.
“He’s one of the finest pilots around and I’m no medical expert, but with all that was happening in his life Zaharie was probably in no state of mind to be flying,” Shah’s unnamed friend told the New Zealand Herald.
According to The Sun, Shah spent most of his time using a home flight simulator where he replicated the flight path executed by. A report released by the Ministry of Transport Malaysia confirmed that MH370’s flight path was remarkably similar to the one Shah rehearsed. To this day, no suicide note has been uncovered.
The Sun also depicted the plane’s movement before it met its oceanic grave, claiming MH370 climbed to over 40,000 feet and maintained elevation long enough to starve its passengers of oxygen, which took approximately 15 minutes.
As soon as the plane began to stray off course, ADT would have been able to detect that the plane was in distress. Thus, leaving it up to on-the-ground operators to act accordingly. Military radar only began tracking the flight 66 minutes after it diverted course. By the time military radar located MH370, it had already flown over 100 miles from its expected flight path. Malaysia Airlines began its search for the plane at 2:40 a.m.—79 minutes after ADT would have detected distress.
The Atlantic wrote that “doppler data indicated a steep descent—as much as five times greater than a normal descent rate,” which means the plane was in nosedive for enough time that its impact with the surface of the ocean likely caused it to “fracture instantly into a million pieces.” BBC reported that out of 20 pieces of debris found from MH370, “only a handful have been confirmed” to have come from the aircraft.
On March 8, 2014, the world bore witness to the most devastating and mysterious tragedies in the history of aviation. To this day, the families of those who lost loved ones continue to lack a concrete answer as to why or how the plane fell off the face of the Earth. One can only hope that with the implementation of new standards and technology for commercial aviation, those who take to the skies will be a little bit safer soaring above the clouds in the enormous metal vessels we call planes.
James Baratta is a sophomore journalism major who claps when the plane lands. They can be reached at [email protected].