2 Feb 2015

Tracking down lost planes

8:46 am on 2 February 2015

A group of New Zealand experts are joining forces with overseas counterparts to try to develop systems to track down missing ships and planes at sea.

The developments could help find missing aircraft such as the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean almost a year ago and has never been found.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared without a trace on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared without a trace on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board. Photo: AFP

The New Zealanders are members of the Defence Technology Agency, a business unit of the New Zealand Defence Force.

They have joined with a team led by Nigel Bannister, who is a senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at the University of Leicester.

The New Zealand part of the mission is led by the director of the Defence Technology Agency, Brian Young.

A former science teacher, Dr Young became a senior researcher at Otago University and elsewhere and did post doctoral studies in the United States. He also worked at the New Zealand embassy in Washington as a science and technology attache.

Others in the team are Sally Garrett, an environmental scientist with a background in IT, and veteran mechanical and communications engineer John Kay, who has worked in this field for more than 20 years.

Dr Bannister said the system would use existing technology to track down movements at sea, which he said were currently less well monitored than was commonly supposed.

Under the scheme, satellites already in space would monitor the movement of ships and aircraft by taking repeated photographs of the surface of the sea.

If a plane or ship went missing, rescue teams could scroll back through a list of past photographs to find the most recent useful image, helping to pinpoint the location.

Dr Bannister said at present, the site where a plane or ship disappeared could be too big for a search to have a realistic chance of finding it.

He said the system was economically feasible because it would use existing technology available on satellites already in space.

The extra costs of taking more photographs could be met, he said, if shipping companies and insurance firms insisted on it as a condition of doing business.

He said it could also save money in the long run by having rescue teams do far shorter searches.

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