Why Cloud Computing wouldn’t have saved flight MH370

GPS-IIRMSuggestions this week from a plethora of academics that Cloud Computing could have have allowed us to locate Flight MH370, which has now been missing for a week. While airlines have steadily been moving to Cloud computing back end systems, the front end, critical services are not being transitioned quickly and the technical issues with an object moving at several hundred miles per hour through multiple international borders are too many to provide an adequate solution today for tracking an aircraft today.

“Instead of relying on the combination of GPS, primary and secondary radar, and aircraft communications addressing and reporting systems (ACARS) to keep track of planes, we should be making sure they send regular flight information to the data centres in the cloud. Planes would then send information such as aviation signals and pilot conversations as a compressed digital stream efficiently through satellite networks.” – Source

It’s a bit naughty for the Cloud Computing pundits to get on this bandwagon. The reality is that it has little to do with Cloud Computing at all and everything to do with the ability to stream a massive amount of data from a plane in real time. The problem is, how do you get that data from the plane to the ground?

The answer is, nothing land based. The plane moves too quickly and the ability for ground based receivers, such as cell sites, is severely limited, particularly when you can be moving across international borders. Basically, it isn’t going to work.

The current answer is satellite. You transmit information up, the satellite bounces it back down to land based services.

Here’s the issue. Bandwidth. A typical black box records anywhere between 4GB and 128GB per flight. With anywhere up to 8,000 commercial flights in the air at any given point in time, the amount of collective bandwidth required is massive. The problem is that most up-link speeds for satellite are down around 80Kbs. That means that a 4GB file would take about fifty days to transfer. 80Kbs is only enough for a very small amount of data, or voice (at about 10Kbs.)

So streaming the data in real-time is basically not possible based on those kind of figures. While there has been some suggestion that the data can be compressed, the reality is that it would likely need to be encrypted to protect it, which reduces the amount of compression you can use significantly.

Next, the law would need to be changed. In most jurisdictions the flight recorder data can only be accessed by an air flight investigator post incident. In most places the pilot hits the erase button once the flight is complete.

Finally, any fail safe type system that could send data is still subject to pilot control. Pilots have to have the ability to be able to power down any device on the aircraft if it poses a risk. I.e. A fire. So having a device that is unable to be powered off is not going to be workable.

“Aireon LLC, a joint venture between U.S. satellite operator Iridium, the Canadian air navigation service and three European air traffic control authorities – says it will provide a space-based global air traffic surveillance system beginning in 2018.” – Source

New systems effectively send a txt type message to a satellite that shows only the planes GPS location and speed. These are not yet mandatory globally, though are likely to become so, especially after this incident. These messages can be sent each second, as opposed to live streaming which has bandwidth limitations or ACARS, which only talks home every twenty to thirty minutes.

“ADS-B equipment is already found on around 60 percent of aircraft worldwide and the signals broadcast aircraft position, and velocity information that are picked up by radar, air traffic controllers or other aircraft. These are among the signals used by flight tracking websites such as flightradar24.

Most planes are expected to eventually carry the ADS-B equipment. Current regulations in Europe require all airplanes to have it by 2017, with similar requirements in effect for the United States from 2020. In Australia, where radar infrastructure is in short supply, it’s mandatory for all aircraft, while India, Brazil and others are also looking at making it a requirement.”- Source


Of course, like I pointed out before, these can be disabled, however that would indicate a problem immediately.

“But if MH370 had been fitted with technology that made use of the cloud it may never have been lost in the first place. ” – Source

Nonsense. As you can see the technical difficulties currently make this impossible. To claim that “We could have stopped flight MH370 going missing” through use of Cloud Computing is irresponsible and incorrect.







  1. Well, being someone what owns a startup that does actually track aircraft, I can assure you that it doesn’t matter one inch if your servers are in the ‘cloud’ or not. As far as bandwidth goes I am currently watching a plane flying to australia (from New Zealand) using my system. It sends basic telemetry and position information in 20 bytes. I have that aircraft reporting waypoints every five minutes. This costs around NZ$0.10 per waypoint.

  2. I agree with slushfundsupervisor. There’s only a small amount of critical information that aircraft would need to send out in flight – preferably using a redundant system that couldn’t be manually turned off without turning off other primary systems.

    Ah, Apperley – you’re right that its nearly impossible to compress any data post encryption, but why wouldn’t you just compress it first and then encrypt?

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