UPDATE 1-Malaysia jet saga highlights doubts over air traffic radar

Fri Mar 21, 2014 9:03pm EDT
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* Experts call for satellite-based navigation

* Ambitious projects underway in Europe, United States

* Costs, complexity slow implementation (Adds information about Canadian firm's system)

By Tim Hepher, Andrea Shalal and Brenda Goh

KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 (Reuters) - The ease with which a big jetliner melted into the ether after vanishing from Malaysian radar illustrates an uncomfortable paradox about modern aviation: state-of-the-art airplanes rely on ageing ground infrastructure to tell them where to go.

While satellites shape almost every aspect of modern life, the use of radar and radio in the cockpit has, for many pilots, changed little since before the jet engine was first flown.

Even though Malaysia suspects someone may have hidden its tracks, the inability of 26 nations to find a 250-tonne Boeing 777 has shocked an increasingly connected world and exposed flaws in the use of radar, which fades over oceans and deserts.

"It's not very accurate. The world's moved a bit further along," said Don Thoma, president of Aireon, a venture launched by U.S.-based mobile satellite communications company Iridium and the Canadian air traffic control authority in 2012 to offer space-based tracking of planes.

"We track our cars, we track our kids' cell phones, but we can't track airplanes when they are over oceans or other remote areas," he told Reuters.   Continued...