MH370: When Tech Isn't Enough

The limits of technology are conflicting with human expectations in the hunt for Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

Investigators today shifted and expanded the search zone for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 after recalculating the jet's speed and how much fuel it carried. The shift will give spotter planes from Australia more time in the air to look for floating debris, but has also led to renewed questions about whether the effort is running out of clues to the passengers' fate.

The hit-and-miss nature of the three-week search has angered families, some of whom believe that Malaysian officials are holding back information, or even covering up evidence. This frustration has also exposed the limits of technology -- in both the aircraft and the search for it -- limits that many people seem to have forgotten in our plugged-in lives.

"There's a common misperception about technology that there's always an app for that," said Janet Vertesi, professor of sociology of science and technology at Princeton University. "It's been fueled by popular culture, that technology is always going to be saving us."

Vertesi said that the rise of smartphones and their uncanny ability to both locate and connect to anyone, anytime -- combined with unrealistic depictions of fictional super-sleuths on TV programs like CSI -- have lulled us into a sense that tech can do anything.

But reality is quite different.

"Technology is always very local and limited," said Vertesi, who has worked with NASA to study the human teams who control robotic missions to Mars. "It's built to solve particular kinds of problems, but it has limitations. It's unevenly distributed. Not all countries, states or cities have access to the same databases, satellites and computing resources. You are not always working in a world with no constraints."

The search for Flight 370 has already faced these constraints. Transponders either failed or were turned off, air traffic controllers lost the plane and aviation experts haven't found evidence of hijacking or pilot suicide.

There's also been a lag between the time that satellites spot debris, to when the images made available to aerial search teams, and then how quickly ships can plow through rugged seas to the objects.

Searchers are in a race to find the flight data recorder, or black box, which could hold clues to what happened, including the final two hours of the pilots' conversations. But the battery on this black box only has about 10 days left and a range of three miles underwater.

Locator beacons don't always work, according to Roger Connor, a curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and a commercial airline pilot. He likened the belief in GPS transponders to hikers who get lost in the woods with their cellphones.

"People have this sense that I can do this because if I get in trouble, I hit a magic button and someone comes and picks me up," Connor said. "There is a disconnect between our perception of capability and what is actually possible."

The remote search area and rough weather will likely push both humans and technology to the edge, he added.

"This is about the worst place to lose an aircraft. It's not regularly traversed, the seafloor is deep and rugged. The hardware is not designed for that environment, once you get below 10,000 feet you run into limitations."

As with any big technological disaster, the mystery of Flight 370 will likely push technology in new directions. Already, as Vertesi noted, analysts from the British satellite firm Inmarsat used a new method of analyzing data to project the plane's flight path.

And Connor said that the aviation industry will be forced to adopt changes; perhaps streaming data instead of recording it or fixing gaps in air traffic radar coverage that still exist in many parts of the world. Maybe new inventions will result.

"This is going to be seen as one of the biggest challenges to the aviation sector in quite a while," Connor said. "There are going to be a lot of people who will be inspired to come up with creative solutions."

Vertesi said technology is also political. Big countries with bigger budgets, military know-how have the advantage. The search for MH370 is forcing regional rivals in southeast Asia to work together.

"So many nations that don't have reasons to share data or military resources have banded together and shared technology in an effort to solve this problem," Vertesi said. "That takes time but I have seen a lot of innovation, which is exciting."

Still, both experts say the hunt for MH370 may end up relying more on a bit of luck and calm seas.

Captain Peter Moore is silhouetted against the southern Indian Ocean aboard a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, on March 27, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia.

Sept. 8, 2011 --

 The history of every athletic league is peppered with tales of heroes and triumph.  But as the recent case of a hockey team in a devastating plane crash illustrates, the pursuit of athletic glory can suddenly morph into tragedy. At least 43 people, including members of Russia's Lokomotiv ice hockey team, died after a plane from the western Russian city of Yaroslovl crashed. The incident has rattled hockey fans worldwide. The team, who were on their way to a season opening match, included several former NHL players. In this slideshow, we explore the fates of similarly devastated athletic programs, and how home team and fan support stayed in the game against all odds.

In what may be the most well known major disaster to involve a sports team, the 1970 crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 claimed the lives of all 75 passengers aboard, including the Marshall University football team and coaching staff. Efforts to rebuild the program following the tragic season were chronicled in the 2000 documentary "Marshall University: Ashes to Glory" as well as the 2006 film "We Are Marshall."

The crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 led to what is the most grisly story on this list. On Oct. 13, 1972, the plane crashed into the Andes mountains flying out of Montevideo, Uruguay, and bound for Santiago, Chile. Out of the 45 passengers, which included members of the Old Christians Club rugby team, only 12 died in the immediate aftermath of the crash. The rest endured cold and starvation, which forced survivors to eventually resort to cannibalism. An avalanche even claimed the lives of eight passengers. Eventually, after two months without rescue, three of the survivors embarked on a mission to try to find help on Dec. 12. Nearly 10 days later, they found rescue and later sent help back to the remaining survivors. Out of the 45 original passengers, only 16 remained. This photo shows a reunion of survivors and their family members.

On April 27, 1993, the Zambian national soccer team boarded a charter flight bound for Gabon for a World Cup qualifying match. The plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean as a result of pilot and mechanical error, killing all passengers and crew members aboard. The team's captain, Kalusha Bwalya, seen here next to the graves of his teammates, was not aboard the flight, however, as he had been playing a club match in the Netherlands at the time.

On May 5, 1949, a plane flying out of Lisbon, Portugal, carrying the entire Torino FC team, a soccer club based out of Italy crashed during preparations for landing in Turin. The entire team, the club's manager, five reserves and two trainers were among the 31 casualties of the plane crash. The club was known throughout Italy for their high quality of play and were approaching what may have been a championship season. The crash devastated Italian soccer fans, who collectively mourned with memorials and a tribute game.

On Feb. 6, 1958, British European Airways Flight 609 made several attempts to take off from an icy runaway in Munich, Germany. On its final attempt, the plane crashed. Aboard the plane were 44 passengers, including members of the Manchester United soccer team. The team was en route to a European Cup match in what was then Yugoslavia. Half of the passengers aboard, including several of the players, died in the crash. Other players, such as the team's captain and its goalkeeper, assisted in rescue efforts to help survivors escape the wreckage.

The Bluffton University tragedy may be the most recent entry on this list. The baseball team, en route to a tournament in Sarasota, Fla., boarded their coach bus on March 2, 2007. After the driver mistakenly entered the exit ramp of a carpool lane in Atlanta, the driver lost control and the bus rolled over a concrete barrier, off a bridge and onto the street below. Seven of the people on the bus, including five players, the driver and the driver's wife, were killed in the accident. More than 20 people were taken to area hospitals to be treated for injuries.