Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Could a plane become invisible? Research findings lead to such a possibility

While several theories, from somewhat logical sensible to the bizarre,  have emerged over the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian airlines flight MH370, one of the most intriguing that is doing rounds is that the airplane could have been made invisible by use of cutting edge technology. As outlandish as this might sound, researchers across the world have achieved reasonable amount of success in this cloaking technology.

In June 2013, a team of researchers headed by Professor Chen Hongsheng from Zhejiang University in China demonstrated a hexagonal device that made a fish and a cat invisible by bending light around the animals creating what is arguably the first invisible cloak in the world.  

According to a report published in the Scientific American, metamaterials can create prefect cloaking in principle which makes the cloak as well as its contents invisible. 

While several countries including the United States have been working on this technology, the Chinese seem to have gone farthest in making objects invisible using cheaper technology.

Another technology that is used to cloak objects is nanotube paint. According to a report by MIT Technology Review in December 2011, a nano-structured coating could be used to make paints for stealth aircraft that can’t be seen at night and that are undetectable by radar at any time of day.

The coating made of carbon nanotubes can be used to cloak an object in utter darkness, making it indistinguishable from the night sky. Invisibility cloaks shield objects by manipulating incident light so that it simply flows around them.

Not just research organisations but even private firms engaged in defence technology such as BAE Systems which specialises in advanced defence and aeorospace systems, is working on making aircrafts invisible and claims to put it to commercial use soon. The unique camouflage system called Adaptiv could help turn a helicopter into a cloud or a warship into a wave. According to the firm’s website, the high tech camouflage system uses modules, which look like cells in a honeycomb to cover the flanks of an armoured vehicle.

Speaking to this newspaper, Dr B.S. Murty, Professor at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering at IIT Madras said that while it was technically plausible to make little objects invisible, it is highly unlikely that a huge airplane could be completely made invisible using nano or any other technology available at present. 

“If hiding the plane from being detected by satellites and other communication devices is the objective, then it could be simply achieved by constructing an underground hangar and setting up jamming devices to prevent transmission of signals,” he said.

The last time an aircraft that went missing from the radars leaving the entire aviation world puzzled was in the year 2009 when Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, that took off from Rio de Janeiro on May 31 to Paris never reached its destination.

While the investigation agencies probing into the disappearance of the flight had a similar daunting experience unable to find a clue on what happened to the airplane, bodies and debris emerged slowly in the days and weeks following the crash. It took almost two years before the bulk of the wreckage, the majority of bodies, and the voice and data recorders were recovered. All 228 aboard died. Three years later, French authorities said ice crystals disrupted the system used to determine the plane's airspeed, causing the autopilot to disconnect. The plane plunged into the ocean.

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