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Clues About the Lost Malaysia Flight Found on Rooftop Antennas

By Dina Bass
April 10, 2014 7:20 PM EDT 39 Comments
Flight Lieutenant Jayson Nichols flies aboard a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on March 27, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia.
Photographer: Michael Martina - Pool/Getty Images
Flight Lieutenant Jayson Nichols flies aboard a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on March 27, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia.

In the chaos immediately following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a crucial source of data came from four rooftop antennas installed by aviation enthusiasts living near the flight path. The volunteers, who host the gizmos for a Houston-based company called FlightAware, captured clues aiding the search for the plane that went missing more than a month ago.

FlightAware provides real-time flight tracking that’s licensed by companies and accessed by consumers via free mobile apps. The nine-year-old company mainly aggregates data from air-traffic-control organizations and airlines, but it’s able to fill in some holes using the trackers it distributes to anyone willing to climb on top of their houses.

Each FlightFeeder device weighs half a pound and is about the size of a soda can. Customers plug in the blue-and-white box and put an antenna on the roof, which receives signals from transponders inside planes passing overhead. So far, FlightAware has convinced people to install about 300 of these in 58 countries, but CEO Daniel Baker expects to have a couple thousand in circulation by next year.

Full coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370:

Data from a few aviation geeks weren't enough to end what's now the longest search in modern commercial flight. Clearly, the flight-detection system needs work. In an era when anyone can use a smartphone to see where they are on a map, storing a black box inside a plane seems crazy. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that keeping logs trapped on planes is done mostly because of cost. Sending data from each flight in real time via satellite would be extremely expensive.

In the case of the Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 people, the four FlightFeeders that happened to pick up signals from the plane could only tell so much. The devices just receive communications when a plane's transponder is on and transmitting. As soon as someone shut down the tracking systems on Flight 370, FlightAware lost touch, too, says Baker.

Even though it wouldn't have helped in this case, FlightAware is trying to amass a more comprehensive database to minimize situations where its customers are left in the dark. One way will be to find more people like Iain McFadyen, a telecommunications engineer in Trinidad and Tobago. McFadyen, 53, installed a FlightFeeder in January at his apartment in Port of Spain. He's a licensed ham radio operator, and was drawn to the program by his fascination with aviation and connecting with fellow hobbyists. He was also inspired by a different plane disappearance — Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

"I felt so frustrated about the time taken to find and recover the wreckage,” McFadyen says in an e-mail. “Now, the recent happenings with Malaysian MH-370 just makes me realize how fragile the trans-oceanic flight tracking system is."

Thanks in part to these types of crowdsourced efforts, FlightAware has been profitable since 2006 and posts revenue growth of 40 percent to 50 percent a year, Baker says. The company has about 2,000 paying customers, and more than 6 million users of the free apps and website.

The company incorporates information from air-navigation service providers in 47 countries, mostly in North America, Europe and Oceania. Baker is trying to land deals in Latin America, and expects to add Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize this year. Later, the company wants to get into Russia and China, where it currently has no data and where attempts to do so will likely be met with suspicion from government officials and citizens, Baker says. Data providers throughout Asia have been mostly unwilling to work with FlightAware, he says.

Getting people to put up antennas at their homes could be an end-around to establish bases in areas where good data aren't for sale, Baker says. In exchange for access to the data transmitted from FlightFeeders over the Internet, FlightAware gives volunteers a professional account worth $90 and other perks.

"I got a T-shirt,” McFadyen says, "and I got a warm fuzzy feeling inside that I am helping to contribute to what I believe is a worthwhile cause."

Never underestimate the power of a free T-shirt.

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