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US's old satellites cannot track Malaysian airplane, as war drones suck funds dry
by Staff Writers
Moscow (Voice of Russia) Mar 25, 2014

File image.

The US's old satellites cannot track the missing Malaysian airplane as money is being spent on war drones instead. As the world grows obsessed with drone imagery, it comes at the expense of ignoring satellite radar technology. In today's day and age, high-resolution image satellites are capable of snapping very detailed photos of small locations.

However, an imagery solutions manager for the firm Esri believes that old-fashioned radar satellites are superior at finding lost items at sea.

Radar satellites in all actuality do not see the world but instead get a sense of different items the same way a bat does. For bats, they use sonar to hit signals off of prey to figure out their target's location and other surrounding objects. From the technology side, radar satellites take thorough scans of the planet by hitting electromagnetic signals off of the surface of the earth.

It has been noted that officials in the military sector will not publicly disclose what exact instruments they are using to search for the missing plane. However military wise, these model satellites were excellent for looking over huge spaces where clouds covered the surroundings or to locate ghost ships that had turned off their unit. The satellites are also helpful at finding 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" Kurt Schwoppe, the Esri manager, said, according to a article.

It is the kind of technology that NASA was head of development back in the 1970s. Nowadays, space-centered radar is a sector where other nations are out out-developing the US, at least from a commercial standpoint of view. The big players in the industry are AirBus and RADARSAT (which has Lockheed Martin involved but is managed out of Canada by MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates). "From a commercial company standpoint, we have not flown a radar satellite ourselves," Schwoppe admitted.

There is the issue, since the US continues to lean on commercial satellites for imaging data than any other device. "Right now to buy this data from the Canadians or the Europeans is just very, very expensive. So then it never gets acquired, " Schwoppe said, according to, then he added, "The US 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 behind in space-based radar technology has hurt the US before. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, where 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, had used high-resolution satellites to take volumes of photographs but could not at all get a good sense of the actual spill area. The RADARSAT II satellite on the other hand was able to offer daily coverage on the entire area affected. Still, it seems that the US has not learned its lesson, as it appears that history is repeating itself.

In the past ten years imagery has evolved. The US brought to Afghanistan and Iraq high-resolution satellite imagery to take care of the task of getting photos at a resolution of up to 50 centimeters. This means photos could be taken of insurgents hiding in the dirt covered hills of Pakistan's border.

However, in the here and now high-resolution satellite imagery is playing an important role in the hunt for Flight 370. One US company, DigitalGlobe, has opened its image satellites to try and help find the missing aircraft. It has launched a crowdsourcing campaign in sign up volunteers to analyze the many 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 DigitalGlobe official explained, in an email, according to

Though, the crowdsourcing solution may only give empty hope as false positives can be found. Schwoppe is very skeptical of the technique. To begin with, the high-resolution imagery does not give extended enough coverage for a sound conclusion to be made. As an illustration, DigitalGlobe's satellites can only view a space that is about 11 miles wide, while RADARSAT's can cover around 310 miles.

America's reliance on high-resolution imaging is only surpassed by its obsession with armed drones, which have been seen as basically useless in the search for Flight 370. Unmanned aerial vehicles were a perfect choice for places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where the US military was in search of ways to follow suspects around or even stay in one crucial area where insurgents could be laying low.

"From a tactical perspective in actually fighting ground operations, UAVs were extremely powerful and they met that niche," Schwoppe observed, as stated in a article, "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 European and Canadian organizations have found other uses for radar technology by keeping a watchful eye on the environment, the US lags behind in this sector. Should the US and its allies decide to ignore such technology and not give it more attention, the next flight gone missing might be much harder to locate.

Source: Voice of Russia


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