Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Light-Based Radar Could Have Helped Track Lost Plane, Engineers Say

By Ben Wolford on March 19, 2014 4:34 PM EDT

A screen on board Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER flight MH318 shows the plane's flight path as it cruises over the South China Sea. (Photo: Reuters)

A screen on board Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER flight MH318 shows the plane's flight path as it cruises over the South China Sea. (Photo: Reuters)

For investigators searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, perhaps the biggest setback happened the moment someone or something disengaged the transponder on board. But recently engineers have been working on new light-based radar technology that could someday provide failsafe tracking systems so that airplanes will never be lost.

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A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature describes how, for the first time, scientists have used a laser beam radar to detect a passing aircraft. Eventually, the authors say, light-based radars could replace the multiple systems currently used to communicate with and locate airplanes.

"Having a single system that can do a lot of different things allows us to imagine that maybe we will have in the future a way to collect data about speed and altitude along with what's going on in the cockpit," Paolo Ghelfi, of the National Inter-University Consortium For Telecommunications in Pisa, told Discovery News. He also told LiveScience.com that this kind of technology could be like a real-time "second black box."

In today's flights, the transponder uses radio waves to tell other planes and crews on the ground vital information about an airplane, including its identification and altitude. This information supplements radars, which can only detect the distance to an object by bouncing a radio signal off the plane.

The benefit of laser technology is its ability to integrate analog (like radar) and digital (like a transponder) into one automated signal. Ghelfi and his colleagues have been testing their system on random planes around the Pisa International Airport long before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing March 8. The European Research Council announced the commencement of the research in July. And his team isn't the only one working on light-based radar. The U.S. military has been conducting related research for decades.

Though laser radar can cast a much wider net than standard radar, it nonetheless has limitations. Had the technology been in use March 8, Ghelfi says there may still not have been enough radars to cover the vast expanse of ocean. "I don't know in that part of the Indian Ocean how many radars are there," Ghelfi told LiveScience.com. "Even if those radars can have a larger coverage area, probably the airplane would have been lost anyways."

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