A new satellite imaging concept could help locate lost planes and ships in the future

Satellite imaging to help find lost planes

Leicester University researchers have proposed a new concept for using images from remote sensing satellites that could potentially decrease the time needed to find ships and planes lost in the oceans.

Working together with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency and Surrey-based DMC International, the researchers have proposed using sensors on board 54 land-monitoring satellites already in orbit to create a continuously updated database of images of the world's oceans to help find clues about missing planes.

“If you are in the open ocean, and you get into difficulty, particularly in a small vessel, there is a significant chance that you will be lost at sea,” said Nigel Bannister from the University of Leicester’s department of Physics and Astronomy. “There is currently a big problem tracking small vessel maritime traffic and this system could provide a much improved awareness of vessel movements across the globe, using technology that already exists.”

With images being acquired every time the satellites pass over the ocean, the researchers believe they would likely be able to find the last known location of a missing ship or an aircraft, possibly reducing the search area to a few hundred square miles, increasing chances for survivors.

For comparison, rescue teams looking for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that disappeared without a trace in March last year, are currently scanning 23,000 square miles of sea bed in the region determined as the most likely resting place of the ill-fated plane.

“The University of Leicester brought to this research a unique capability to build a public, open source model of an International Virtual Constellation of spacecraft from 19 nations – a transparent view of space operations never done before,” said David Neyland, former assistant director of the US Navy Office of Naval Research-Global, which provided funding.

“The research is a watershed event encouraging international satellite owners and operators to collect and share open ocean imagery for the common good of enhancing safety of life at sea. The case of the missing Malaysian flight MH370 demonstrates how easy it is to lose a large object, even with today’s technology.”

Having published preliminary results in the latest issue of the International Journal of Remote Sensing, the team is currently focusing on developing algorithms capable of automatically detecting objects like ships and planes.

Ever since the tragic and so far unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March this year, calls for a major overhaul of aircraft monitoring have been gaining intensity.

On Friday morning, Malaysian authorities announced searchers have already scoured a third of the area identified as the most likely resting place of the aircraft, believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean after deviating from its original route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Not a single fragment of the plane’s wreckage has been found in more than ten months of intense search efforts.

The Malaysian authorities said they remain confident the plane is within the area, determined through an elaborate analysis of data exchanged between telecommunication satellites and the aircraft prior to the crash.

They further said it will take until May to complete the search.

"If we cannot find MH370 within this area, we need to sit down again and decide what's the best way forward, based on the data we have," said Mior Nor Badrishah Mohamad, an official of Malaysia's civil aviation department.

Malaysia on Thursday declared the disappearance an accident, clearing the way for the airline to pay compensation to victims' relatives.The country's civil aviation authorities plan to release an interim report on the investigation on 7 March, a day before the first anniversary of the flight's disappearance.


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