The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has exposed some of the inadequacies of existing air traffic control systems and posed a compelling mystery of how an airplane can disappear from radar screens without a trace.
In the meantime, researchers are working on new kinds of radar that could provide clues to the next such mystery, radar that uses short bursts of light to produce a signal that can not only detect an airplane mid-flight, but also cover a wider territory and communicate with the plane at the same time.
In today's journal Nature, a team of engineers from Italy published a study about so-called photonics radar, which uses laser to produce the radar signal, which is then transmitted through a traditional antenna.
"We substitute electronics with photonics," said Paolo Ghelfi, a researcher at the National Inter-University Consortium For Telecommunications (CTIM) in Pisa, Italy and an author on the study. "The first reason is to increase the precision and flexibility of the radar system."
Ghelfi says that photonics radar can combine surveillance and communication in one signal. That is something that now requires multiple systems between the plane and the ground, and has befuddled investigators looking for flight 370.
"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," Ghelfi told Discovery News.
Ghelfi's project, developed along with fellow researcher Antonella Bogoni, is undergoing trial runs at the Pisa Airport to track planes, as well as the port of Livorno, Italy, to track ships in the Mediterranean. The team's PHODIR (photonic-based fully digital radar) was funded by the European Research Council.