Science, Tech & Environment

Why do we depend on 1960s technology to locate missing planes?

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Credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Planes' so-called "black boxes" are neither black, nor boxes. But they're still the best way investigators have of determining why a flight went down.

A tremendous amount of information has already been discovered on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, despite no one having located a crashed plane or heard anything from the crew.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

But the real answers, the why, and the how, are still elusive, and will likely remain so until the critical flight data and cockpit voice recorders can be found — if they can be found.

The devices, referred to often as the plane's black boxes store streams of flight information, conversations and other plane noises. Uncovering them could point to what was happening during the flight's final moments — like in the case of Air France's Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, resulting in the deaths of all 216 passengers and 12 crew members. 

But the recovery of AF 447's black boxes didn't happen for more than two years after the flight's crash. And the Air France flight went down in an area that, while extremely inaccessible, is almost nothing compared to where searchers are looking for the Malaysia Airlines flight.

Now, as the world waits for answers about MH370, there is yet another question to ask. Why, in 2014, do we depend on 1960s technology to explain why a plane crashed? 

"What we're actually doing is using VCR technology in the age of Netflix. [And then] we take the VCR and throw it into the ocean, and then we try to find it," said Clive Irving, contributor at The Daily Beast and a senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler.

Clive has reported on both Air France Flight 447 and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. He says live streaming technology is "readily available right now," and should be used to replace black boxes.

"After that Air France crash the Europeans ran a series of nearly 600 simulated crashes in which they used the live-streaming method as an alternative. And they found out that in 85 percent of those cases the information could have been retrieved as effectively as if it were in the black box," Clive said.

In addition, in 82 percent of the test cases, searchers were able to locate where the plane went down with an accuracy of within four miles.    

What seems to be missing is simply the will and motivation to update the technology, Clive claims. "I think we need to scream loudly, and widely," he said. "This time, there's such public amazement that this isn't going on. That public amazement in itself becomes a political force." 

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