MH370: When Tech Isn't Enough


Investigators today shifted and expanded the search zone for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 after recalculating the jet's speed and how much fuel it carried. The shift will give spotter planes from Australia more time in the air to look for floating debris, but has also led to renewed questions about whether the effort is running out of clues to the passengers’ fate.

The hit-and-miss nature of the three-week search has angered families, some of whom believe that Malaysian officials are holding back information, or even covering up evidence. This frustration has also exposed the limits of technology -- in both the aircraft and the search for it -- limits that many people seem to have forgotten in our plugged-in lives.

"There's a common misperception about technology that there's always an app for that," said Janet Vertesi, professor of sociology of science and technology at Princeton University. "It's been fueled by popular culture, that technology is always going to be saving us."

Malaysian Plane Debris? Why It's a Race to Find Out

Often the only "survivor" among the wreckage, black boxes help investigators determine what happened in an airplane accident. Find out what's inside a black box.
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Vertesi said that the rise of smartphones and their uncanny ability to both locate and connect to anyone, anytime -- combined with unrealistic depictions of fictional super-sleuths on TV programs like CSI -- have lulled us into a sense that tech can do anything.

But reality is quite different.

"Technology is always very local and limited," said Vertesi, who has worked with NASA to study the human teams who control robotic missions to Mars. "It's built to solve particular kinds of problems, but it has limitations. It's unevenly distributed. Not all countries, states or cities have access to the same databases, satellites and computing resources. You are not always working in a world with no constraints."

Why Are We Still Looking for a Black Box?!

The search for Flight 370 has already faced these constraints. Transponders either failed or were turned off, air traffic controllers lost the plane and aviation experts haven't found evidence of hijacking or pilot suicide.

There's also been a lag between the time that satellites spot debris, to when the images made available to aerial search teams, and then how quickly ships can plow through rugged seas to the objects.

Searchers are in a race to find the flight data recorder, or black box, which could hold clues to what happened, including the final two hours of the pilots' conversations. But the battery on this black box only has about 10 days left and a range of three miles underwater.

Locator beacons don't always work, according to Roger Connor, a curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and a commercial airline pilot. He likened the belief in GPS transponders to hikers who get lost in the woods with their cellphones.

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