New Technology Could Help Find Aeroplanes Lost at Sea

In a novel system developed by MIT researchers, underwater sonar signals cause vibrations that can be decoded by an airborne receiver
In a novel system developed by MIT researchers, underwater sonar signals cause vibrations that can be decoded by an airborne receiver | © Ed 259 / Unsplash

Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor

With two-thirds of the planet covered in water, finding a plane lost at sea is a formidable task. But now, a novel system of underwater sonar signals could help rescuers detect downed aircraft.

Loved by over 40s

When an aeroplane crashes at sea, it can take months or years to find the wreckage, if at all.

Recovery efforts are complicated by myriad factors. First, air traffic controllers don’t always know the exact location of planes flying over oceans. While pilots use GPS to track the plane’s position internally, air traffic control back on land determine location by sending out radio waves. The amount of time it takes for these waves to bounce off the aircraft tells air traffic control the plane’s distance and location, but this only works if the aircraft is within the radar tower’s line-of-sight – making remote ocean locations a radar blind spot.

While locations are estimated based on flight plans, deviations are common – especially if there is a problem that might result in the plane going down.

In the event of a suspected crash, recovery teams use a plane’s last known coordinates, ocean current and wind analysis to narrow down a target search area – however, this can still leave a target zone up to 500,000 square miles of open ocean.

These vast stretches of ocean are then searched manually, by men and women in rescue planes scanning for wreckage with binoculars – a slow, tedious and imprecise task.

A new technology system from MIT could help find aeroplanes lost at sea

While planes are equipped with underwater locator beacons that send out ultrasonic pulses detectable by sonar and acoustical locating equipment, today’s most advanced beacons can only transmit as far as 20,000 ft, or just over 3.5 miles – meaning rescue boats need to float almost directly over a crashed plane to detect its signal.

But now, scientists at the MIT Media Lab have developed TARF (Translational Acoustic-RF communication), a technology capable of communicating from underwater to the air.

“Trying to cross the air-water boundary with wireless signals has been an obstacle. Our idea is to transform the obstacle itself into a medium through which to communicate,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor in the Media Lab, who is leading this research.

While the tech is still in its infancy, it allows submarines to communicate with aircraft while still submerged and could also be used to find crashed aeroplanes by sending acoustic beacons to search aircraft.

“Acoustic transmitting beacons can be implemented in, say, a plane’s black box,” Adib says. “If it transmits a signal every once in a while, you’d be able to use the system to pick up that signal.”

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.