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New algorithm computes how to find those lost at sea

Researchers devise an effective new predictive tool for maritime first-responders.

Image source: PHOTO JUNCTION/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • Predicting the locations of objects and people lost at sea is devilishly difficult.
  • MIT and other institutions have developed a new algorithm that identifies floating "traps" that can attract floating craft and people.
  • The new TRAPS system has just completed a successful first round of testing.

When the first pieces of Malaysian Air Flight 370 finally turned up in July 2015, they were found on Réunion Island off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from the best-guess location of where the plane went down. Experts weren't especially surprised at the drift, given the complexities of the ocean.

Finding a missing craft or person at sea in a hurry is a nightmare for first responders, and the math involved in tracking survivors — and debris — is anything but simple, given the sea's ever-changing mix of wind, weather, and wave conditions.

Researchers at MIT, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Virginia Tech recently announced the first successful trials of their new "TRAPS" system, a system they hope will provide faster, more accurate insights into the floating locations of missing objects and people by identifying the watery "traps" into which they're likely to be attracted. The team's TRAPS research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

According to Thomas Peacock, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, "This new tool we've provided can be run on various models to see where these traps are predicted to be, and thus the most likely locations for a stranded vessel or missing person." He adds that, "This method uses data in a way that it hasn't been used before, so it provides first responders with a new perspective."

A Eulerian approach

Image source: MIT

The TRAPS acronym stands for "TRansient Attracting Profiles." It's an algorithm based on a Eulerian mathematical system developed by lead study author Mattia Serra and corresponding author George Haller of ETH Zurich. It's designed to discover hidden attracting fluidic structures in an onrush of changing data.

The traps the researchers seek are regions of water that temporarily converge and pull in objects or people. "The key thing is," says Peacock, "the traps may not have any signature in the ocean current field. If you do this processing for the traps, they might pop up in very different places from where you're seeing the ocean current projecting where you might go. So you have to do this other level of processing to pull out these structures. They're not immediately visible."

The new algorithm crunches through data representing the most reliable available wave-velocity snapshots at the last-known position of the missing item, and rapidly computes the location nearby traps in which a search is likely to be productive. As velocity data is continually updated, so is TRAPS.

Comparing the new Eulerian algorithm with previous Langrangrian predictive methods, Serra says, "We can think of these 'traps' as moving magnets, attracting a set of coins thrown on a table. The Lagrangian trajectories of coins are very uncertain, yet the strongest Eulerian magnets predict the coin positions over short times."

At sea

Image source: MIT

Theory is one thing, and functioning out on the real, maddeningly complex ocean is another. "As with any new theoretical technique, it is important to test how well it works in the real ocean," says Wood Hole's Irina Rypina.

The study authors were pleased — and surprised — at how well TRAPS worked. Haller says, "We were a bit skeptical whether a mathematical theory like this would work out on a ship, in real time. We were all pleasantly surprised to see how well it repeatedly did."

The researchers tested TRAPS off Martha's vineyard in the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 and 2018. WHOI sea-going experts assisted as they attempted to track the trajectories of a range of floating objects — buoys and mannequins among them — set into the water at various locations.

One challenge is that different objects may behave in their own ways in the ocean. "These objects tend to travel differently relative to the ocean because different shapes feel the wind and currents differently," according to Peacock.

"Even so," says Peacock, "the traps are so strongly attracting and robust to uncertainties that they should overcome these differences and pull everything onto them."

In their experiments, the researchers tracked freely floating objects for hours via GPS as a way to verify the TRAPS system's predictions. "With the GPS trackers, we could see where everything was going, in real-time," says Peacock. Watching the objects move via GPS, the researchers, "saw that, in the end, they converged on these [predicted] traps."

Anchors aweigh

The researchers now have sufficient faith in TRAPS that they plan on sharing it soon with the U.S. Coast Guard. Says Peacock:

"People like Coast Guard are constantly running simulations and models of what the ocean currents are doing at any particular time and they're updating them with the best data that inform that model. Using this method, they can have knowledge right now of where the traps currently are, with the data they have available. So if there's an accident in the last hour, they can immediately look and see where the sea traps are. That's important for when there's a limited time window in which they have to respond, in hopes of a successful outcome."

18-ton section of Chinese rocket crash lands following uncontrolled reentry

If you were awaiting screaming death from the skies, you can relax. For now.

Image source: STR/Getty Images
  • China's Long March 5 rocket core has landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean following an uncontrolled entry.
  • Most of the time, returning hardware that doesn't burn up plunges into the ocean or uninhabited areas.
  • There have been two larger returnees in the past, though this one was quite big.

Maybe future generations will look back on these early days of space exploration and chuckle at what we had to suffer through. We live in a time when, every now and then, word goes out that some giant chunk of uncontrolled defunct space junk is about to crash down upon us somewhere, so, um, duck? The hope during such moments is that the deadly debris will land in the ocean that covers most of the Earth's surface or in some unpopulated area, and it usually does. Usually.

Anyhow, if you've been anxiously looking up this week — either at the sky or your ceiling in quarantine — waiting for the core section of China's Long March 5 (CZ-5B) rocket to end you, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It landed safely, for humans anyway, in the ocean off the west coast of Mauritania in northwest Africa on May 11.

Long March into the sea

Though CZ-5B is one of the largest craft to come down in an uncontrolled reentry, its size is not the only thing that had astronomers like Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on the edge of their seats. "I've never seen a major reentry pass directly over so many major conurbations!" he tweeted. (A conurbation is an extended urban area.)

While some debris comes down via a controlled landing, that was not the plan for CZ-5B. McDowell tells CNN, "For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth." No biggie, he says, since, "Once they reach the lower atmosphere they are traveling relatively slowly, so worst case is they could take out a house."

CZ-5B took off just a week or so ago, on May 5 for just a few days in orbit. Some of its 30-meter-long core stage burned up on reentry, and apparently none of what remained hit anyone, but there are reports of property damage in the Côte d'Ivoire village of N'guinou.

We’ve ducked debris before

A no-doubt radioactive piece of Cosmos 954

Image source: Natural Resources Canada/Wikimedia

At this point, there have been a number of well-publicized spacecraft plummeting down destination-unknown. Probably the scariest was the return of the 4.4-ton Soviet-era spy satellite Cosmos 954. What made its uncontrolled re-entry so frightening is that it was nuclear-powered and threatened to spew radioactive material all over wherever or whomever. The original plan had been to boost it high into a nuclear-safe orbit, but a separation failure doomed the craft to fall back to Earth.

In the end, Cosmos 954 did crash in Northwestern Canada, blowing radioactive debris over a wide area. Canada billed the U.S.S.R $6 million for the cleanup, of which only $3 million was eventually paid.

Probably the first widely publicized uncontrolled return, and one of the two most massive, was of Skylab in 1979. It was another case of a craft coming back earlier than intended, and though NASA couldn't control the 77-ton craft's reentry point, it could control the manner in which it tumbled on down. The nail-biting ended on July 11, 1979, when most of Skylab burned up over the Indian Ocean, though some big pieces survived the descent and landed southeast of Perth, Australia. No one got hurt. The Australian town of Esperance charged NASA $400 for littering. The U.S. also didn't pay up.

Another piece of debris larger than CZ-5B was the Soviet Salyut 7 after nine years in orbit. At the time it came down, it was docked with another spaceship, Cosmos 1686. Salyut 7 weighted in at about 22 tons, as did Cosmos 1686. The connected pair of craft reentered together, burning up and breaking apart over Argentina, with bits raining down on the town of Capitan Bermudez. Amazingly, no one was injured.

One could say we've been pretty lucky so far, though it's hard not to look forward to a time when dying spacecraft can be somehow vaporized out in space where it's safe instead putting those of us down here at absolutely-nothing-you-can-do-about-it risk.

How the Nazis faked part of Hamburg to fool Allied bombers

'Operation Invisibility Cloak' was a waste: Hamburg would soon be firebombed to bits

Image: Reddit
  • In 1941, the Nazis camouflaged an entire lake at the centre of Hamburg.
  • A painted tarp was made to look like a bunch of city blocks from above, in the hope of misdirecting RAF bombers.
  • But the Brits weren't fooled, and Hamburg would later suffer horrific firebombing.
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Rolls-Royce to launch all-electric plane in 2020

The racing plane is hoped to be the fastest electric plane in existence.

  • The electric aircraft industry is just starting to get off the ground, with Siemens breaking the world record for the fastest electric aircraft in 2017.
  • With ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight), Rolls-Royce intends to beat that record in the spring of 2020.
  • While these are existing developments, the field of electric aviation has significant challenges to face before we can expect to see electric long-distance passenger planes.
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Boeing to halt production of the 737 as FAA continues review

Following two deadly crashes, the FAA has been engaged in a lengthy review process of the Boeing 737. With recent news that the review may continue into 2020, Boeing has opted to halt production of the plane.

Gary He/Getty Images
  • Boeing has decided to halt the production of the 737 Max after the FAA announced that its review of the plane will extend into 2020.
  • After two recent and deadly crashes, the FAA has grounded all 737-model planes.
  • The news spells financial trouble for Boeing, especially since another one of its major planes — the 787 Dreamliner — has been receiving significant quality complaints.
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