With modern tracking technology, how could Malaysia Flight 370 disappear?

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off at 12:21 a.m. local time Saturday March 8 from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. The airliner lost contact with ground personnel within two hours of takeoff and has not yet been located. With technology seemingly able to track our every move, how can an airplane disappear? That is the question technology editor Brian Fung of the Washington Post addresses in the article “Technology tracks our every move. How can an entire plane go missing?

Radar, he notes, has limited range, especially over the ocean at significant distances from ground-based radar installations, although there have been reports that the airliner may have been detected by military radar shortly before it disappeared. In the United States, he continues, aircraft come with emergency locater transmitters meeting standards set by the ICAO, but it's up to each country whether to adopt such capabilities.

More obviously, passengers' cellphones or Wi-Fi-enabled devices would have been useless as locating devices. Even if turned on, they would have been out of range of base stations or access points; apparently MH370 was not equipped to offer in-flight Wi-Fi service.

As for what might help in the future, Fung cites automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B, and the Next Gen satellite-based air-traffic control system, of which ADS-B is part. Completion is years away.

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