A Vietnamese Air Force Colonel assisting with the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370

AP Photo

A Vietnamese Air Force Colonel assisting with the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370

Drone Warfare Is Why We Can’t Find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

The long and frustrating hunt for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 might be a sign of what’s to come, thanks to our growing obsession with drone imagery at the expense of the quaint technology of satellite radar data.

While today’s high-resolution image satellites can take very detailed pictures of relatively small areas, old-fashioned radar satellites are the best solution for finding lost objects at sea, says Kurt Schwoppe, manager for imagery solutions for the company Esri. Radar satellites don’t see the world. Rather they get a sense of objects in somewhat the same way that a bat does. As bats use sonar to bounce signals off of prey to determine the location of targets and other objects, radar satellites take detailed scans of the planet by bouncing electromagnetic signals off the earth’s surface. Military officials won’t publicly disclose what assets they are using in the search for the missing aircraft. But militarily speaking, these sorts of satellites were great for seeing over large areas where there was cloud cover or finding ghost ships that had turned off their transponders. They’re also useful for spotting anomalies at sea.

“If there’s any oil slick that stands out well because there’s these flat dark spots where there are no wave ripples at all. If there’s an angular thing, like maybe a wing floating on the surface or some type of debris, that stuff stands out brightly” says Schwoppe.

It’s a technology that NASA led in the development of in the 1970s. Today, space-based radar is an area where other countries are out-innovating the United States, at least commercially. The main private players are AirBus and a Canadian public-private program called RADARSAT (which includes Lockheed Martin but is run out of Canada by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates or MDA). “From a commercial company standpoint, we have not flown a radar satellite ourselves,” says Schwoppe.

That’s a problem because the U.S. continues to rely more on commercial satellites for our imaging data. “Right now to buy this data from the Canadians or the Europeans is just very, very expensive. So then it never gets acquired,” says Schwoppe. “The U.S. has invested a lot in this technology and the question is, can we get some of these commercial vendors up and start making a commercial business out of this and get it more and more readily available for different use cases. It seems we’re great at developing technology. Then others adopt it and put it to good use and for us it sits on the shelf a little bit.”

Lagging space-based radar imaging has bitten us before. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, in which 4.9 million barrels of oil were leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, high-resolution satellites took volumes of pictures but could not get a comprehensive sense of the entire spill area. The RADARSAT II satellite, conversely, was able to provide daily coverage of the entire area.  You think the U.S. would have learned.

To understand how the U.S. got to this point, consider the last decade’s evolution of reconnaissance tools. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we brought high-resolution satellite imagery to bear on the task of getting snap shots, at a resolution as fine as 50 cm, of insurgents hiding among the dusty hills of the Pakistan border.

Today, high-resolution satellite imagery is playing a role in the search for Flight 370. U.S. company DigitalGlobe has opened up its image satellites to aid in the search and launched a crowdsource campaign to enlist volunteers to analyze the images. “Users can go to Tomnod, and zoom in on each satellite image from DigitalGlobe’s satellite constellation and drop a pin if they see signs of wreckage. Its algorithm, CrowdRank, will find where there is overlap in the tags from people who tagged the same location. Then, DigitalGlobe’s expert analysts will examine the tags to identify the top 10 or so most notable areas and share the information with customers and authorities,” a company official explained, in an email.

But the crowdsourced solution may not be ideal and can produce false positives, as evinced by the singer Courtney Love’s fleeting but ebullient conviction that she had found the phantom Malaysian flight based on satellite imagery.

Schwoppe is skeptical of the tactic. The necessity of crowdsourcing speaks to the fact that high-resolution imagery doesn’t offer wide enough coverage. DigitalGlobe’s satellites can only see an area that’s 18 kilometers wide. RADARSAT’s synthetic aperture radar can cover 500 kilometers.

U.S. reliance on high-resolution imaging is surpassed only by the military obsession with unmanned areal vehicles or UAVs, which have proven relatively useless in the current search for Flight 370. UAVs were an ideal solution for an environment like Afghanistan or Iraq where the military wanted the ability to follow a target from house to house to roadside, or perhaps loiter over a key area where insurgents might be gathering. “From a tactical perspective in actually fighting ground operations, UAVs were extremely powerful and they met that niche,” Schwoppe observed. “We had the luxury to do that because we totally controlled the airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan and you know we won’t have that same luxury in other areas.”

As previously mentioned, the most-recent budget request cuts spending for Navy satellite communications to $41,829,000 from $66,196,000 and the Navy Satellite Control Network $20,806,000 from $35,657,000.

Schwoppe believes that military spending on radar satellites is probably safe, but can’t be sure. “I can tell you, the reconnaissance community understands and knows the value of radar, especially as targets change.” But he acknowledges that broader cuts in military satellite programs are disturbing.

Also, European and Canadian groups have found civilian uses for radar technology in environmental monitoring, another area where the U.S. lags.

If the U.S. and allies don’t give this old technology some better attention, the next Flight 370 might be even harder to find. 

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