2014 saw several tragedies including the downing of several planes, one of which still has not been found. With the recent discovery of the wreckage of AirAsia Flight 8501 in the Java Sea, many people are wondering how, in the age where you can locate your phone anywhere in the world with the click of a button, can an entire flight disappear?
Well, I did a little bit of research on the topic and as it turns out, the answer is a little more complicated than people realize. Times reports that airplanes do have a GPS system, known as ADS-B, which broadcasts the plane’s location on regular flights. But, in the event of an emergency where a plane is going down, the conditions are too extreme for the GPS to function.
“People have been comparing this situation to Apple’s Find My Phone app,” John Walton, a British aviation journalist, told TIME in an article. “But the app can’t tell you very much on the way down if your phone is thrown off a 10-story building.”
So, that explains why the plane itself didn’t transmit the exact location as it was going down. But it still doesn’t explain why the air traffic control lost the plane in the first place. Well, as it turns out, most air traffic control stations haven’t upgraded completely to GPS ground and satellite navigation yet and instead rely on the older radar systems to track planes.
According to Reuters, upgrading to GPS is costly and there have been a lot of debate about standards, costs and deadlines. Currently, it is reported that a real solution to this problem is at least a decade away. The Times reported that expensive GPS technology has not been prioritized because they aren’t really sure whether or not it would actually help save lives, and many believe that money is put to better use by improving technology that will make planes safer.
Of course, while it might seem that planes go down all the time—there have been at least three highly-televised incidents that I am aware of in 2014—as it turns out, this last year was actually the safest year recorded in aviation with only 8 downed planes. The next safest year was in 2012, with only 11 downed planes recorded.
I’m not an expert on the use of GPS with aviation, but I hope that clears up at least some of the confusion about how such a tragedy is even possible in this day and age where you can track just about anything, anywhere. I only hope that these tragedies help spur more advances to make planes even safer in the years to come.