3rd April 2014: Speed may shrink the time, but we still live in a very big world » 2014 » Mobbsey's Musings » Paul Mobbs/MEI » FRAW

Speed may shrink the time, but we still live in a very big world – the physical realities of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations, Tuesday 11th March – published in 'Musings' 3rd April 2014

Boeing 777

Today we move so quickly, relying on so many systems and mechanisms, perhaps we have collectively lost our sense of how small we are in this very great world. As we move faster, and demand greater comfort and safety, so our modes of transport become more complex – and thus prone to unexpected failure. From plane crashes to train wrecks, being reminded that things can, and sometimes do go wrong unsettles our consensual illusion of safety.

(Note – this was an op-ed piece commissioned in early March by an American news service who wanted a "technologically sceptical" take in the issue. In the end they decided not to publish, so I share it with you now).

According to that famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" That may have been the case back in the Victorian era. In today's complex, machine-managed world that this maxim is of little use. Any failure can throw up so many "probables" that it is often very difficult to tell which caused an incident with any certainty. And when we're talking about physically intangible quantities, such as the logical complexity of computer software, verifiable answers may be indiscernible.

In our instant access, on-line world we have become accustomed to a seemingly all-knowing, all-seeing view of events around us. In fact the simplicity and convenience of modern communications has hidden the befuddling level of underlying complexity which makes those systems function. And seldom do we give a thought to what happens to our way of life when things go wrong.

The difficulty with incidents such as the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that there are so many "possible" explanations. And through the media try and comfort us with one explanation or another – leading to a confusing debate in the absence of hard facts – there is little evidence available to attribute the plane's loss to any one cause or another.

However, there is one thing we do know – the plane cannot be found. And there are answers for why that is the case.

The loss of flight MH370 highlights the sheer scale of our capacity for moving great distances; and also the problems this creates when thing go wrong. Why is it that, a few days after the plane disappeared, that we have still found no trace of it?

If still intact , we're looking for a fuselage that's roughly 64 metres long by 60 metres wide. The South China Sea is approximately 3.5 million kilometres square. Literally, that's almost a one in a billion chance the plane at any random point in that sea. Or to put it at a more everyday scale, imagine looking for a mustard seed in the grass of a football field; how long would take take you?

We can reduce the area to search, and increase the probability of success, by looking where the plane is most likely to be. That requires two things: an accurate fix on the plane's last position; and a knowledge of the waters where it has fallen.

Unlike the land, where we can cross of each small area searched, the difficulty in looking for objects at sea is that the surface is in constant motion. Wind, tides and regional currents might carry objects a few tens of miles each day – in straight lines, or in circles. If a search does not factor in shifting tides and currents, areas might be missed in the search; certainly enough to hide debris from any impact.

If the plane has broken-up that presents a greater difficulty. Even using high-tech video monitoring rather than old-fashioned eyes and binoculars, the speed of the search is still limited by the capacity to visually assess the area. The speed of the search is proportionate to the size of the object you're looking for – the smaller the object, the slower it is necessary to travel. The more vessels, and the more eyes on those vessels, the faster you can search; but you're still up against physical limits of find objects a few metres long in thousands of kilometres of ocean.

And if the plane broke up then you have to look for oil slicks or debris – but after a few days they might be some distance from the main body of the plane on the sea bed.

This incident has also highlights the problems of keeping an accurate fix on aircraft in transit over the oceans. High resolution radar, capable of fixing the height, direction and speed of an aircraft, only works a few tens of kilometres from the coastline. In most instances planes are tracked using signals which the plane itself emits. The plane finds is position using geographical positioning satellites (GPS), and then transmits that position and its unique identity to satellites and ground stations which monitor ship and aircraft telemetry (for example, see the Flight Radar 24 web site).

The obvious flaw in this system is that if the plane suffers an on-board systems failure, or the telemetry feed is turned off, the vehicle cannot be tracked. The GPS system itself can also be disrupted during solar storms, providing inaccurate positioning data or failing altogether. As in the case of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 the problem is both the lack of, and confusing nature of the available data on the aircraft's position – which adds yet more complexity to the planning of search and rescue efforts.

In the final analysis though, we must face the realities of all human mechanical systems; they all fail.

Either through direct systems failure, or because they are no longer economic to repair – or replace. The more money we spend designing, testing and maintaining those systems, the more we can reduce the likelihood of that failure over a specific period of time. That additional margin of safety comes at a knowable price. A whole field of applied mathematics – reliability engineering – has grown up around this subject, and that has been driven by high-risk systems like aviation or the nuclear power industry. This can reduce, but never eliminate, the risk of any system failure. And everyday "non-engineering" issues, such as higher-pressure working environments, forced efficiencies or cut-backs, and simple operator or maintenance errors which flow from these, can quickly negate the safety features designed into engineering systems.

Whatever the circumstance though, there is one "known unknown" factor that we must all accept. In any human system there can never be 100% safety, and that is the price we have to pay if we wish to live in an ever-more complex world. Most people consciously accept, without question, that cost-benefit notion of "progress" in our daily choices, and the implications which flow from them – from fatal accidents to environmental pollution.

In truth though, how many of us really do the math before we step into a plane, train or automobile? Instead we accept, on pure faith, that things will work as usual. Perhaps then it is the violation of our blind trust in technology which we find so troubling in the events surrounding any human disaster, rather than the demonstrable facts in each case.