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Can Tech Solve the Mystery of Malaysia Airlines' Flight Disappearance? Not So Far.

Like finding an analog needle in a digital haystack.

After Malaysian investigators announced this morning that the missing flight MH370, which disappeared from satellite radar while carrying 239 passengers, was hijacked, the search is growing much wider using a number of tech tools.

But, so far, with all the monitoring tools available, the mystery of the disappearance is unsolved as yet.

The prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, announced this morning that “deliberate action” had disabled the communication systems, which showed the aircraft was still airborne many hours after falling off Malaysian military radar. The plane would have been able to travel about 2,200 miles in that time (potentially reaching as far as Pakistan).

The six largest satellite companies — including NASA — are moving their satellites to look for the Boeing 777 last seen over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8th. The map-makers at Mapbox, for example, built a tool to see each satellite’s footprint since March 9th.

“We’ve never had something like this in history,” said CEO Eric Gunderson. “All of these satellite companies [are] coming together to search, but it’s a huge area.”

And DigitalGlobe set up a site for volunteers to scour pictures from the Gulf of Thailand. Called Tomnod, the site is “a platform for crowdsourcing satellite imagery.” About 2.5 million people have already joined to help.

Meanwhile, NPR reported that Boeing 777 pilots note that disabling all contact systems is difficult to do and would require advanced knowledge of the aircraft. Planes are equipped with transponders that can be switched on and off and also have cockpit radios and a text-based messaging system.

Most important, the black box, which stores a minimum 25 hours of flight data, is built to withstand an impact velocity of around 310 mph and 2,000 degrees for one hour.

David Ison, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told NPR that newer technology — such as automatic dependent surveillance–broadcasts, which would make a plane more trackable in remote locations — hasn’t yet been widely adopted.

“In this day and age, having no ability to pinpoint these aircraft is really not acceptable,” he said in the interview. “We have technology to make it happen.”

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