Radar specialists on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force
P-3K2 Orion take part in the search for the missing
aircraft. REUTERS/Jason Reed
Britain's Inmarsat used a wave phenomenon discovered in
the 19th century to analyse the seven pings its satellite
picked up from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 to determine its
The new findings led Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to
conclude that the Boeing 777, which disappeared more than two
weeks ago, crashed thousands of miles away in the southern
Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people on board.
The pings, automatically transmitted every hour from the
aircraft after the rest of its communications systems had
stopped, indicated it continued flying for hours after it
disappeared from its flight path from Kuala Lumpur to
From the time the signals took to reach the satellite and the
angle of elevation, Inmarsat was able to provide two arcs,
one north and one south that the aircraft could have taken.
Inmarsat's scientists then interrogated the faint pings using
a technique based on the Doppler effect, which describes how
a wave changes frequency relative to the movement of an
observer, in this case the satellite, a spokesman said.
The Doppler effect is why the sound of a police car siren
changes as it approaches and then overtakes an observer.
Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch was also
involved in the analysis.
"We then took the data we had from the aircraft and plotted
it against the two tracks, and it came out as following the
southern track," Jonathan Sinnatt, head of corporate
communications at Inmarsat, said.
The company then compared its theoretical flight path with
data received from Boeing 777s it knew had flown the same
route, he said, and it matched exactly.
The findings were passed to another satellite company to
check, he said, before being released to investigators on
The paucity of data - only faint pings received by a single
satellite every hour or so - meant techniques like
triangulation using a number of satellites or GPS (Global
Positioning System) could not be used to determine the
aircraft's flight path.
Stephen Wood, CEO of All Source Analysis, a satellite
analytic firm, said it seemed that the investigators had
narrowed down the area substantially. "But it's still a big
area that they have to search," he said.
The incident is likely to spur a review of aviation rules,
especially related to communications equipment and the
ability to turn off a plane's transponder, he added.
But it is too early to say what that would entail because it
remains unknown what made the plane divert from its original
"This type of incident will cause everyone who flies
airplanes commercially with passengers to be really pressed
for a whole new line of ways to keep track of their precious
cargo," said Wood, a former U.S. intelligence officer who
headed the analysis unit of DigitalGlobe Inc, a satellite
imagery firm, until July 2013.
DigitalGlobe last week provided images that Malaysia's
government called a "credible lead" for the massive
trans-national effort to locate the plane.
Shortly after the plane went missing on March 8, Inmarsat
used the ping data to plot two broad areas where the plane
likely flew after it vanished from radar. One path took it
north over central Asia, the other south to the Indian Ocean.
As days passed, more images and data became available,
helping focus the search. But piecing that information
together is time consuming and requires synchronizing the
clocks of the various data systems, sometimes to a fraction
of a second, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S.
National Transportation Safety Board.
"Every time they get additional information from an
additional site, they've got to go back and revisit what
they've already done," Goglia said.
But the efforts are rewarded, he said, when all the sources
of the data point to one spot at the same time.
The complexity of the work can take weeks, he added. "As
difficult as this one was, I'm amazed that we've got some of
what we've got so quickly," he said.
Inmarsat said for a relatively low cost its satellites could
keep tabs on flights and provide data exchanged between the
air and the ground to help organise routes to save time and
Its systems, which are widely used in shipping, have been
embedded into surveillance and communications technologies
that allow air traffic controllers to build up a picture of
where aircraft are, and to better manage routes.
"If you have that (...) capability you get a preferred
routing at the right altitude that makes your aircraft more
fuel efficient, but if you don't have it you have to fly
lower and get less priority in air-traffic control," said
David Coiley, Inmarsat's vice-president for aeronautics.
The system is used in planes in the North Atlantic, Coiley
told Reuters earlier this month, but it is not commonly used
in all parts of the world.
Sinnatt said on Monday that such a facility would cost about
$10 per flight. "It is something we have been pushing the
industry to do because it significantly adds to safety," he
said. Other satellite providers are also developing tracking