First Air, a Canadian airliner, flies across some of the most remote and sparsely populated areas on the continent, with routes going as far north as Resolute Bay, in the Arctic Circle. Its planes are often beyond the reach of conventional radar. They are also nearly disappearance-proof.
That’s because of a six-pound tracking system, about the size of a hotel safe, installed in the planes’ electronics bays. When flights proceed normally, the system never snaps into action. But if something goes wrong — a sudden loss of altitude; an unexpected bank; engine vibrations — the system begins transmitting data to the ground, via satellite, every second. That six-pound box spits out reams of performance data, as well as the basics necessary for a search-and-rescue: coordinates, speed, and altitude.
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