Reading the whispers of MH370

A communication ‘heartbeat’ has helped narrow the search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The flight disappeared in March 2014 with 239 people on board.

“Essentially we’ve had to develop, and measure the accuracy of, a way to use the extra data collected during the satellite communication,” says Dr Neil Gordon, Head of Data and Information Fusion at the Defence Science and Technology Group in Australia.

“The main communication data is a ‘heartbeat’ signal every hour, asking the aircraft ‘are you there?’ When it says ‘yes,’ a little bit of information attached to that message is captured, giving hints on the speed and direction the plane is travelling, and the distance between the satellite and the aircraft,” Neil says.

The team produced a probability distribution of the aircraft’s whereabouts at the time of final contact. Information from London-based satellite operator Inmarsat was used to draw a final 100,000 km2 zone where the plane most likely entered the water.

The analysis needed to take many details into account, including the effects of wind; aircraft dynamics; and the Doppler effect, which causes the frequency of the signals arriving at the satellite to increase slightly if the plane is moving towards the satellite and decrease slightly if it is moving away.

They trialled the approach on previously-recorded flights by the aircraft, flights with known locations that were in the air at the same time as the missing plane, and on planes of the same model.

Samuel Davey, Ian Holland, Mark Rutten and Jason Williams of DST Group were part of the team assisting the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

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