At 41 minutes after midnight, March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur and headed to Beijing. About 40 minutes later the flight crew, now over the South China Sea, was told by air traffic controllers to "contact Ho Chi Minh", the control center in Viet Nam next along their planned flight path. The crew confirmed. That was the last voice communication received from Flight 370.
The search for Flight 370 continues as of this writing. Adding to the frustration of those working to determine the fate of the plane and the 239 souls on board is the belief that in this connected age it should not be possible to lose track of a commercial aircraft. The Boeing 777 used for Flight 370 was equipped to take full advantage of the revolutionary changes which have rewritten operating procedures in the transportation sector.
GPS + IoT
The revolution actually began in 1995 when GPS, the Global Positioning System, became fully operational. GPS receivers receive signals from orbiting satellites enabling them to determine latitude, longitude and altitude with enough precision to be used for most navigation tasks. Before GPS complex systems of fixed ground based radio beacons, more than three thousand world-wide at one point, and surveillance radars were employed to help pilots navigate and avoid collision with other aircraft. These ground facilities had limited range and vast areas of ocean had little or no coverage. Today space based GPS covers the globe providing navigation both in the air and on the sea.
But it is the still emerging Internet of Things that is providing the literal missing link. GPS is one-way communication, satellites broadcasting to client devices. With the advanced connectivity provided seamlessly by the Internet of Things, clients are able to exchange position data with servers and with other clients. As detailed in a draft from the Internet Engineering Task Force, the result is the integration of communications, control and information processing across transportation systems, allowing for dynamic real time interaction. The intelligent network has enabled intelligent transportation.
For consumers the car navigation system is probably the most visible example of intelligent transportation. Early systems were expensive and consisted of GPS receivers capable of determining position. To display that position on a map, the receiver needed to have an on board database of map images.
The ubiquitous connectivity of today's devices simplifies client requirements dramatically. The GPS receiver client still determines its position, but now it transmits that position data to its server. The server sends the client the mapping data it needs for its local area only. This greatly reduces the cost of the client, and also makes it far easier to keep the mapping data current.
But the intelligent network is not limited to data storage. It can also provide computing services. So the route computation function is also transferred to the "cloud" and with real time connectivity, the intelligence in the network can monitor route progress, detecting, for example, when traffic slows compared to average rates indicating unfavorable conditions such as accidents or road construction.
Both Google and Apple have proposed telematics standards to allow mobile devices running their operating systems to be controlled in cars through the vehicle's dashboard controls and display. This will allow the vehicle to take advantage of the computer power and connectivity built into the smart phones many drivers already carry. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is working on standards for auto and truck manufacturers to enable wireless communications between vehicles with the goal of reducing accidents, decreasing fuel consumption and speeding travel. "Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags," says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The vehicle transmissions can also be received by traffic control equipment, allowing smart management of traffic signals, express lanes, toll collection and other transportation related systems. The technologies may also play a key role in the development of self-driving vehicles.
The Federal Railroad Administration is working on similar standards for rail traffic in an initiative known as Positive Train Control. Consumers are already benefiting receiving accurate predictions of arrival times for the next bus or train delivered directly to their mobile devices and displayed at stations and street pickup locations.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been developing collision avoidance systems for planes since the 1980s. Commercial aircraft have been required to have Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems installed since 1993. Initially designed for use during takeoff and landing, they transmit position data directly to other aircraft nearby and notify pilots of traffic posing a collision risk.
Using GPS, TCAS and the connectivity provided by the latest satellite networking technology, the FAA's "NextGen" procedures give pilots and controllers more flexibility to fly more efficient routes, saving time and fuel, while increasing safety by increasing the amount of information pilots and onboard automation systems have about other traffic in the surrounding area.
The ability to track vehicles and shipments at all points of the transportation is also leading to efficiencies in areas of fleet management and dispatch. Shipping companies are already using the information from these systems to improve logistics planning and execution, while customers are using the information to optimize just-in-time inventory systems and determine the optimal method for priority shipments.
For one example, Knight Transportation has equipped its 4,000 drivers with tablet computers. The tablets help navigate, keep logs and monitor maintenance. Knight CEO David Jackson says the system "will help our drivers stay in touch, be more productive and operate safer trucks."
Connected vehicles can report their physical condition to central locations, advising operators of faults and also warning of potential problems, allowing for maintenance to be scheduled in advance of an equipment failure. Which brings us back to flight MH370. The 777's Rolls Royce engines were programmed to send status reports during the flight. The aircraft also had what is known as ACARS, Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which can be programmed to send performance data. It had satellite communications that used the Inmarsat Aero system, and Inmarsat published a report on its search for MH370 in The Journal of Navigation. The highly automated plane even has a system to detect when the flight crew may be disabled and unresponsive. But it is not clear if any of these systems were being used by Malaysia Air.
A great deal of often conflicting information has been reported concerning transmissions from the aircraft, but it appears no automated reports containing data were received after the time of the pilot's last voice communication.
However, there are reports that attempts to connect to satellite based networks were detected several hours after that time. Analysts liken those signals to "pings" and say they indicate a loss of power to the satellite transmission system at the point of the last voice transmission and a restoration of power hours later. Was this a purposeful act by someone on the plane? Or was it the result of a fire or on board systems failure? Even in this age of intelligent transportation, the mystery remains unanswered.
The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and may not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement. We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission of The Network.