Road Warrior

Finding a better way to track flights


The whereabouts of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 remains a mystery nearly a month after it disappeared with 239 people aboard.

No debris or black box recorder have been found, leaving aviation experts and investigators few clues as to what happened.

The question is whether technology exists that may help prevent or reduce the possibility of a plane vanishing, be it by human intent or a tragic mechanical event.

Turns out there is, but few airlines use it. That could soon change.

"We have some momentum finally, some traction to get the public interest, plus the regulators' interest in moving forward with these types of recommendations," said Shawn Pruchnicki, who teaches aviation safety at Ohio State University.

Had data from the flight been streamed in real time, officials would have been able to better track the plane.

One solution is called AFIRS, the Automated Flight Information Reporting System manufactured by FLYHT Aerospace Solutions of Calgary, Canada.

The Automated Flight Information Reporting System 228 (AFIRS), manufactured by FLYHT Aerospace Solutions.
Source: FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd.

The system can provide voice and data communications, compile data collection and transmission as well as on-demand streaming of "black box" data in real time.

"AFIRS' event-driven transmission logic is programmed so that in an abnormal or emergency situation, AFIRS can start sending all the data that it has," said Richard Hayden, an engineer by training and a member of the FLYHT Aerospace's board of directors.

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Commercial airliners currently use something called the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System to periodically relay bits of information about an aircraft's status. But in the case of flight Malaysian Airlines' MH370, the transponder seems to have stopped transmitting, yielding little information.

Authorities have largely been relying on radar and satellite data in the search. Malaysia's prime minister said March 24 the flight ended in the Indian Ocean, crediting British satellite company, Inmarsat, and the U.K.'s Air Accidents Investigation Branch for analysis that narrowed down the plane's possible crash point.

That analysis used new examination of eight satellite "pings" sent by the aircraft when it vanished from radar screens on March 8 giving the approximate direction of travel.

AFIRS is enabled largely by a 66-satellite iridium low-earth orbit constellation and the Internet, according to Hayden. During normal operations, the system transmits small amounts of data but in an emergency it can operate on a streaming mode to transmit data in real time. It can also pull data via ground personnel who might do so in unusual circumstances without the knowledge of whoever is in control of the airplane.

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The idea of streaming flight data in real time, however, isn't new. More than a decade ago, computer scientist Krishna Kavi of the University of North Texas proposed a method of streaming data to cloud storage with technology he calls the "glass box."

"Airlines said then, and continue to say, that glass boxes are too expensive," said Kavi.

Years later, cost continues to impede most airlines from outfitting planes with real time flight streaming technology.

Ohio State's Pruchnicki said updating an entire fleet of planes with newer flight data streaming technology could indeed cost airlines a lot of money.

"I think when you have a 400-airplane fleet (like) the bigger airlines," he said, "that becomes a very real number."

AFIRS costs about $100,000 for the equipment and installation, Hayden said. For many airlines, that amount is minuscule compared to the cost of a new jetliner or the search mission underway to find flight MH370.

But there are other ways to reduce costs.

"The correct vision, which FLYHT has implemented in a certified product, is that the on-board system is smart enough to know what data to send, and when, rather than using brute force to send all the data all the time," Hayden said.

Some experts say minimizing the type of data that is transmitted in real time would make the process more cost efficient.

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Some experts say it is unnecessary to stream all available flight data in real time and that minimizing the type of data that is transmitted is much more cost efficient.

Pruchnicki said transmitting air speed, location, GPS and power settings is sufficient for now.

The aviation industry may be ready to adopt technology to prevent another tragedy of this magnitude. Though relatively small in scale, dozens of airlines have already implemented AFIRS technology into their planes.

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"The uptake is what might appear small but in fact is accelerating very rapidly since we introduced our new product about two years ago," Hayden said. "So I wouldn't say the airlines are refusing to install it. In fact 30 have seen fit … so it's progressing very rapidly." The airlines asked Hayden not to identify them.

Hayden said five airlines in China are installing AFIRS right now.

But the clock is running out in the search for Flight 370. The batteries in the flight data recorders are designed to last 30 days. In days they could be dead.

The search location has shifted several times, most recently eastward toward the Australian coast from where it was the day before. And Malaysian officials now consider this to be a criminal investigation, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing the Malaysian police chief.

Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, cautioned that what happened to Flight 370 may remain a mystery even after the investigation.

—By CNBC's Nia Hamm.