By Thomas Hale and Daniel Thomas
24th March 2014
Deep in the heart of Inmarsat’s London headquarters, just off Silicon Roundabout, screens illuminate the operations of 10 satellites, each 22,000 miles above the earth in geostationary orbit.
These screens provided the clues that helped unravel the mystery of where flight MH370 came down. They are inundated with daily updates – represented by pink and green lights – that were used by the company’s scientists and engineers to deduce a probable location for the crash.
Inmarsat moved into its present location in 1993, long before the area became synonymous with 21st century technological innovation.
Although technology is at its core, the origins of Inmarsat – short for International Maritime Satellite Organisation – differ greatly from the entrepreneurial tech start-ups that have come to dominate the neighbourhood’s offices and bars.
The organisation was set up as a non-profit initiative in 1979 at the behest of the International Maritime Organisation. It initially helped ships stay in contact with shore but its coverage soon became relevant to aircraft.
As they tried to track down MH370, scientists working for Inmarsat were initially confronted with a single “ping” identifying a location for the missing aircraft. After discovering several pings, however, they were able to discern a possible north-south route.
“We approached [the task of finding MH370] with the traditional view of a scientist: how can we solve this problem?” said Chris McLaughlin, senior vice-president of external affairs. “Our ‘eureka’ moment was realising there was more than one ping.”
The company was able to build up a hypothesis about where the aircraft might have ended up.
“By a process of peer review, we put out this potential data treatment to members of the UK space industry.
“We also worked with Boeing to see how the planes would operate and [on Sunday] we handed our additional thinking to the Malaysian investigation,” he said.
Inmarsat is one of the more overlooked British technology groups, in part owing to the unpopularity of the satellite sector among investors.
Rival communications groups in cable and telecoms, by contrast, have rallied strongly as the growth of mobile data and television content has rapidly increased thanks to the proliferation of smartphones.
The company provides voice and high-speed mobile data to governments and companies operating on land, sea or in the air, with long-term contracts to provide connectivity to ships and aircraft in civil and military use. The US government is a customer.
Inmarsat said this month the first of three satellites in its $1.6bn Global Xpress platform had passed initial testing. All three satellites will be fully deployed by the end of 2014, offering the world’s first seamless, global, high-quality mobile broadband service.
The company has invested heavily in satellites and is coming to the end of a costly rollout of “birds” that have laden it with debt.
The group’s relative obscurity is, perhaps, all the more surprising given the space-age nature of its business, with satellite launches that will benefit from all-electric propulsion systems and so-called “SpaceX” – a system of reusing space vehicles.
Satellites are often crucial in emergency situations when conventional communications can fail, or in this case where there is no coverage because of the height and remote location of the jet. Typical mobile communications cannot reach the height of most aircraft.
In March 2011, Iridium, a satellite phone communications provider, claimed to be crucial in linking services after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In the first 72 hours, Iridium voice and data traffic increased 700 per cent in the region.
Similarly, satellite communications were used extensively in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.