|(Flight MH370) US firm which helped Air France inquiry eager to crunch data
Math wizards who pinpointed the final resting place of an Air France plane beneath the Atlantic stand ready to do so again to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, AFP's Robert Macpherson reports.
No one has yet asked Metron, a scientific consulting firm, to join the search for the missing Boeing 777, but that has not stopped it from getting a head start, using the few nuggets of data in the public domain.
“We're trying to get our hands on all the publicly available data so we can start doing an independent assessment,'' said Van Gurley, head of Metron's advanced mathematics applications division.
As that assessment evolves, “we'll provide it to anyone who's interested,'' added Gurley at Metron's head office in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington.
Founded in 1982, with a staff of 170 that includes experts in applied mathematicians, Metron conducts highly specialized mathematical analysis for US national security applications, such as sonar systems.
But it has also developed a much-used search and rescue protocol for the US Coast Guard based on a theorem developed by early 18th century English statistician, philosopher and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes.
“It's a structured method that forces you to look at all the available information about a problem and then apply a confidence factor – how confident you are in any piece of information,'' Gurley said.
No single bit of data is ever thrown away, but as information is confirmed over
time – say, when a speck in a satellite image turns out to be genuine debris – the probability that the target item is in a given spot evolves.
In the case of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 with 228 on board, the target was its flight data recorder at the bottom of the ocean.
The French air accident investigation agency BEA turned to Metron to figure out the most likely spot where the so-called black box might be – successfully, it turned out when undersea drones recovered it in May 2011.
In that case, however, floating debris from the Airbus A330 had been located within a week and the search area was limited to a circle about 130 kilometers in diameter, Gurley said.
That's practically a flyspeck compared to the vastness of the remote section of the Indian Ocean where the Malaysian authorities said Wednesday that ''122 potential objects'' had been spotted by satellite in recent days -- with not a single piece of confirmed debris since the jet went missing on March 8.
"Everybody wants to know where it is, and the answer is: we don't know,'' said Gurly.
While the Coast Guard regularly uses Bayesian theorem to find, say, fishermen lost at sea, it came up short when Metron was asked in 2007 to find missing US adventurer Steve Fossett, who had been out flying a small airplane in a mountainous corner of California.
A year passed before a hiker just happened upon some of Fossett's belongings, some distance from where he was presumed to be. Bones found nearby were confirmed through DNA tests to be his.
Asked about the odds of locating Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Gurley said the technical means are at hand.
"The technology is available to get to the ocean bottom in this part of the world and search it,'' he said. “But it's an incredibly challenging task – and I think it's really going to come down to time, and will.''