Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Flight 370: When real life inspires fiction, and fiction inspires real life

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

For the last two weeks the world has been glued to its screens as the confounding mystery of what happened to Malaysia Air Flight 370 unfolded. We empathized with the crew and passengers, and prayed their families got some closure. And up until it was announced on Monday that the plane likely crashed in the Indian Ocean, our obsession was fueled by the hope, albeit microscopic, that they may have still been alive as part or an elaborate conspiracy that involves anything from hijacking, theft, terrorism, to someone making a drastic political statement. Even as of writing this, and in the absence of finding any parts of the plane, there are still those disputing that it really crashed.

As a writer, the underlying mystery captured my interest on many levels. Planes don't just disappear from the sky unless they crash, or...Or what? Over the last two weeks we heard it all, haven't we? From bizarre science fiction allusions to shows like Lost and Fringe, to more grounded theories about this potentially being the boldest act of theft in the history of theft.

Real life mysteries like this inspire questions in the mind of any writer. Not just about the science and technology of landing and hiding a plane while evading detection - while that was still a faint hope - but also about a whole cast of characters potentially responsible for such an arcane affair. A new breed of sophisticated terrorists, shady transnational corporations, occult societies, and megalomaniac billionaires with secret agendas. Or perhaps a hostile government seeking to reverse-engineer the plane to get a leg up in the aeronautic race. Even a lone-wolf out to settle a score or for retribution.

But what really got  the writer side of my brain in full gear was how archaic and clumsy this whole investigation came across. I am not an expert in aeronautic design but I have a strong suspicion that the average modern family today owns gadgets that are more advanced than a modern jetliner when it comes to basic "where the hell did it go" technology. Every time I see those grainy, pixelated days-old satellite photos of suspected parts of the airplane - which of course no one can seem to find given the time lapsed between the photos surfacing and the search troops heading out to find them - I can't help but recall the HD quality, real time satellites chasing Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Whatever happened to the promise of that?

As a writer, I don't just keenly observe real life for story ideas. I am also programmed to question the status quo, and to use my creative instincts to think of how existing methods of doing something can be improved on using current technologies. Let alone that history is rife with examples of writers inspiring future innovations. The mobile phone and the touch screen tablet computer first appeared on Star Trek long before they became  integral parts of our modern lives. Jules Verne is credited with the advances in the design of the modern submarine. And Tim Berners-Lee, accredited for inventing the world wide web as we know it, was supposedly inspired by a 1964 short story by Arthur C. Clarke called Dial F For Frankenstein, about networked computers that eventually begin to learn to think autonomously.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen things that can be quickly adapted to modern jetliners, to categorically surmount the problems of not knowing what happened to a plane before it disappeared, and then where to search for it after it goes off the grid. Here are just three.

Black boxes with longer battery lives
Let's start with the obvious. This one doesn't require a genius really. Why on earth in 2014 is the battery life of a black box ping signal still limited to 30 days? And get this, the leading manufacturer of black box technologies along with the airline industry are now looking to the future with a possibility of upgrading that to a whopping 90 days. It took more than two years to find the remnants of the Air France Flight 447 crash. With the advances in power technologies, like pacemakers and cochlear implants, it would seem elementary that the battery life of a black box should be stated in years, not days or months. The latest iPhone has a standby battery life of about eleven days. Which means, very crudely, with the batteries of just 33 iPhones daisy chained so one picks up when another one dies, you can  power a black box for at least one year.

Streaming video
Black boxes record the last two hours of the audio inside the cockpit, which provides critical information to investigators as to what happened before a crash. Wast it pilot error as in the case of Air France Flight 447, or possible pilot malicious intent as in the case of Egypt Air Flight 990? But with WiFi now more and more available on certain airlines and specific routes, what would it take to install streaming video that can't be deactivated by human intervention, live from a cockpit of each airplane in the sky, relayed via satellite? There's increasing speculation that Flight 370 may have become a zombie plane, where the crew and passengers were killed or rendered unconscious due to rapid decompression or smoke inhalation, leaving the plane to fly on autopilot for many hours before it ran out of fuel and crashed. But if you have eyes on the cockpit 24/7, air traffic control will know the instant something like this happens and can then take necessary action. Including piloting the plane remotely.

In fact, I would go a step further and install streaming video in the entire aircraft. I already hear some hearts stopping at the potential invasion of privacy concerns. But hear me out. We are living in an age where governments are blatantly spying on us, and a shocking number of hidden security cameras canvassing the public sphere in the name of monitoring and deterring crime. How much worse would it be to allow cameras in airplane cabins? As a passenger, your entire body can potentially be scanned or your body probed ahead of getting on a plane, so it's not such a big deal to be filmed while you're actually flying.This would preclude the unknown variables about what caused a certain passenger-instigated incident on a plane. And for those concerned about privacy, it could be mandated as law that once a plane touches ground safely, air traffic control are required to delete all in-cabin footage.

Make the entire plane a beacon riddled with communication devices
Part of the challenge of finding a downed plane that could have potentially been flying under the radar for many hours, is that there are very limited components of the plane that are communicating with the world. And then after a crash, it's essentially the black box that's speaking. But how about installing GPS enabled communication devices all over the plane that are in perpetual communication with air traffic control. That way, if the plane crashes and disintegrates into many constituent parts, you've increased your chances of finding the general location of the crash by communicating with more than that one black box. And of course if the plane hasn't crashed and is hiding somewhere, it would be a breeze to find it.

In fact, why is there just one black box, and have you seen how bulky these things are? Your average cell phone can store an incredible amount of data, and I am sure even slimmer chip-sized devices can do the same. How difficult would it be to embed the entire plane with tiny battery-powered devices that perform the same function of a black box of recording data, video and audio, and can communicate remotely if a plane crashes?

My heart goes out to the victims and families of Flight 370, but if anything good can come out of a tragedy, I hope this event is a wake up call for airplane manufacturers and major airlines to start thinking creatively and out of the box to innovate new technologies that would greatly diminish that dreaded black hole of information about what happens to a plane before and after it goes off the grid, which would ultimately make flying much safer.

Will they listen or heed any lessons from this tragedy? I truly hope so. But I get the impression that no matter how advanced planes become, the underlying communication and tracing technologies that keep track of a plane in the sky or after it goes AWOL have not evolved much since the 1970s with the introduction of the Boeing 747,  the first wide body airliner. This is possibly due to the extreme rarity of air traffic tragedies. In the end, unfortunately, it all comes down to economics. Any major innovation in plane tracking and tracing technology means additional costs that the beleaguered airline industry can hardly afford.

But tell that to the families of the crew and passengers of a plane that's been missing for more than two weeks.

Writers and readers, using your creative minds, what other innovations can you think of to make air travel safer, and to avoid a plane ever going missing?

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  1. Great summary and insight! It would be another tragedy for the aviation industry to not learn from this incident and make improvements. You should go a step further and send them a letter.

  2. Thanks for a very thoughtful, intelligent analysis and excellent suggestions for the aeronautics industry, Aymen! And you pose an excellent question: Why, with all the technology available to us now, have they not already implemented some of your suggestions?

    And I highly recommend the excellent international thriller I edited for you, Terminal Rage. Readers will be entertained by a clever, nail-biting thrill ride for only $2.99.

  3. Hi Aymen,

    I remember our Twitter chat about this last week. This has indeed been a tragic and mystifying tragedy. I do hope that the investigators eventually get to the bottom of what happened, although I suspect this will take a long time (possibly 1-2 years).

    My own thoughts about the satellite images and the delays in getting them were as follows. If there is no need for a government to have a specific satellite positioned over a particular geographical area (say for example during an active war, when you're going to want to see troops and large scale equipment moving, for e.g. with current Russia-Ukraine issue, or Middle East situations like Syria's biochemical stockpile or Iran's nuclear plants) then the images would have been captured by satellites just "covering" those areas and would have been analysed retrospectively, after the event. There was a lot of confusion in the first few days of this search about where the last contact/signal was obtained. This made it even more difficult to know where to "point" those satellites or which one to go take a closer look at.

    And the Malaysian government would have had to ask other governments permission to obtain images from specific satellites or to get them to analyze their images themselves. There are a gazillion satellites out there but I don't know how many have imaging capability and how many "digital eyes" would have been covering that part of the world at that time. Many of these satellites are for military use and the respective governments behind them would have been cautious about sharing their military data freely.

    I suspect that speculation will remain rife for months to come as to whether this was a systematic and catastrophic series of electrical failures or whether this was a deliberate human act.

    I think your ideas are all excellent. The technologies exist. But it does ultimately boil down to money. Not just in building future planes but incorporating these new technologies in older planes. Like you said, accidents like this rarely happen, so it comes down to hard, cold, cost-benefit analyses.

    The streaming cockpit video idea is good but would again not be a prospective, but more a retrospective exercise. You'd need double if not more than the the current number of air traffic controllers to be able to monitor all those video streams live: if I'm not wrong, each air traffic controller is monitoring the flight path of several planes simultaneously. The more practical solution would be to zoom in on a "problem plane"'s cockpit video stream, i.e. a plane that's deviated off its intended path or failed to make a scheduled contact.

    Anyway, that's all my addled brain can come up with tonight :)
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post Aymen!

  4. Great ideas, Ayem!

    Before leaving Monterey, I went to the aquarium and attended a session on sharks. They're able to put a tracing mechanism on sharks that are designed to eventually fall off and float to the surface of the sea where they emit a signal to be picked up. They'r about the size of a small bottle of water. If we can do that with sharks...


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