Kansas State professor: UAS could help find Malaysian airliner

By Patrick C. Miller | August 08, 2014

A UAS could help find answers about Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which vanished last March 8.

Kurt Barnhart, head of the department of aviation and the executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kanas State University, Salina, said UAS would be a more efficient aid in the search for the missing airliner.

"We tend to get empty-field myopia," Barnhart said. "If we're not actively guarding against that, we tend to lose focus in areas like open fields or large bodies of water. Our eyes aren't particularly attuned all the time in that situation, so it would be very easy to miss something that might be very important."

UASs don’t have the physical or mental limitations of humans, Barnhart explained. They can be electronically steered by radar, set to automatically identify targets or detect variations in reflected light. Their primary limitation is the length of time they can be airborne, he said.

The international flight—a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board—traveling from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China, lost contact with air traffic controllers less than an hour after takeoff. Much of the search has been focused in the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia.

A primary focus of the university’s Applied Aviation Research Center is investigating how unmanned aerial systems can aid in the response to man-made disasters and natural disasters such as tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes.

Kansas State University is one of the first two universities in the U.S. to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in UAS.