Technologies and the Challenges for SAR

It has been 4 days since the disappearance of Malaysian Air Service (MAS) Flight 370 and thus far, there are no confirmed sightings of any debris from the said aircraft. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 2x C130s are a fraction of the many aircraft and ships enmassed in South China Sea for the search operation. Straits Times reporter recently described his experience onboard the C-130 Search and Locate (SAL) mission. He is right in every aspect, that any Search and Rescue (SAR) or Search and Locate operation regardless of scale is no easy feat.

Credits: ST

The search team has little or no idea where to start, they lack a confirmed splash point and coordinate where search operations will start off, and based on wind, tide and currents, fan out their search accordingly. Even so, unpredictable floating patterns of the debris will throw off your predicted search area, which is currently near datum point ‘Igari’ Once, a SAR Exercise off the waters of Batam took the search team of two helicopters and various ships hours to locate target even with a search coordinate. Imagine the enormous mass of sea off Gulf of Thailand and South China sea. It took five days before search teams in Brazil chance upon the first piece of tail fin of Flight Air France 447.  Similarly, in 2007 Adam Air 574’s elevator was found 9 days after the aircraft went missing, to be recovered by a fishermen.


As numerous foreign assets joined the scene , they are racing against the forces of nature. South China Sea currents are now moving South Westerly towards Malaysia and into the Gulf of Thailand, and as the hours pass, smaller debris will scatter further away from the scene. Currents can bring these pieces 50 nautical miles a day. Just think of ripples rippling out from the centre on the pond. The Gulf Thailand is also a gigantic trough and flush, currents will bring debris further into the shores of Thailand, before residing and flushing out into South China Sea.

The multitude of aircraft involved thus far is staggering. 32 aircraft in total, including 2 C-130 Hercules from RSAF, 4 P-3 Orions from US Navy(1), Royal Australian Air Force (2) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (1). Helicopters includes 5 Seahawks from RSN(1) USN (4) and EC 725 from Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF). These flying machines are packed with electronics suites dedicated for surface warfare, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) Electro Optics, Surface Search radars etc.However, such cutting edge devices will have little effect on search efforts. Debris, small and floating flushed on the surface,has little cross sectional size to be picked up by these radars. Similarly, these readings would be deemed as clutter/ noise by radar software and cancelled out on the radar screen. It eventually reply on the pilots and spotter’s eye to find floating objects. UAV such as the ScanEagle on RSS Vigour will be an useful and important tool in this tool, with an endurance of about 24hours, more than the C-130, operators can rotate on shifts while being on board the ship scanning the sea.



Down below however, submarine hunting sonar from Seahawks and the numerous naval vessels are able to pick up hi-frequency signals from the two black boxes and aircraft emergency beacons. Despite most misconception, with the enormous array of ships, blasting the seabed with sonar will only deafened sonar operators and drown out the faint beacon tone. Much like submarine hunting, they would have probably turned to the silent passive sonar, listening out for any signs of ‘life’  Results thus far, however turned out to be null. These black boxes have a battery life of 30 days.

Air assets are at the mercy of daylight between 7am-7pm for a 10 hour search, at night it will be hazardous to fly low level with so many assets in the air, and IR imaging senors will not be able to pick up debris which will probably of the same cool temperature of the sea by now.Surface vessels will continue over the night, lacking the bird-eye’s view, using search lights scanning the surface. In the end of the day, finding anything will be 99% luck and 1% of everything else combined.

Making full use of satellite imaging, Malaysian authorities now has launched a crowd sourcing campaign to allow members of the public to be involved in the search by tagging on the map if you happen to spot any suspicious object. Play your part here at Tomod. (Website is a little slow, and I have yet to successful load the page. Let me know!)


After massive volunteers crashed the tomnod servers yesterday, the website is up and running again. Seen here, volunteers are able to scan the images captured on the 9th of Mar, a little dated, and tag icons if they found anything like oil slicks, wreckages, or life rafts. Navigate through the sea, as you can see, I am only at frame 29. Clouds make spotting hard, and its made it harder by the resolution of the picture, which is impossible to spot small debris. Tomnod has been successfully used on Typhoon Haiyan to mark the devastation left behind.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 8.15.05 amAs you can see here, I have spotted a peculiar object, so I have it tagged with “Other objects”

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 9.35.38 am


One thought on “Technologies and the Challenges for SAR

  1. Pingback: Search Continues in Southern Indian Ocean- Assets Rundown | Coffee and Bullets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s