There can be no question that aviation is the most important technological advance of the last 100 years. Yeah, computers are cool, too, and there's the telephone, not to mention the 1967 Charger, but for overall impact on humanity I don't think there's an argument.
So, it always amazes me how slow we are to adopt new technology that obviously works. Sure, we have to be careful about anything that goes in an airplane to make sure it doesn't affect the way it performs or the ability of the pilot to control it, but why would we be so defensive of an utterly passive device that hardly ever works the way it's intended to? The emergency locator transmitter was a marvel of technology when it was introduced but so was the ADF. If you still have an ADF, when was the last time you used it for anything other than to listen to the radio?
What's worse with ELTs is that governments all over the world are mandating their use with the full knowledge that better, more effective devices that would save lives starting tomorrow not only exist but are probably cheaper to make and easier to manage than ELTs. That heavy maintenance-needy box in the tail of your aircraft provides a false sense of security. I've been following a few accidents over the last month or so and in all of them (the Ted Stevens crash included) the ELT might as well have been a brick strapped to a bulkhead. The reliance on an external antenna is usually what does them in, although in the Stevens crash the antenna was fine but the ELT ripped from its mount, taking the antenna connection with it. Truth is, ELTs are like the semiautomatic transmission. Once the real deal came along, why would anyone bother with the intermediate solution?
The right technology for finding crashed airplanes is satellite monitoring of aircraft movement. It's been possible for 20 years and it's absurdly easy and cheap now. Trucking companies use it to monitor their rigs on the road, making sure the drivers don't speed, take any unauthorized excursions or drive longer than labor regulations allow. The more progressive have systems monitoring technology on board so they can track the inevitable costs of moving things down the road.
A lot of airlines and charter services do the same and there are several companies that offer devices that can provide second-by-second tracking of aircraft in hundreds of parameters. Some operators take advantage of the technology but most don't because it's not required and it's costly because of the limited demand. At the GA level, we can already glimpse the possibilities with consumer devices like Spot and Spider Tracks, personal trackers that have already helped save dozens of lives and made rescues much more efficient.
The authorities are now in the throes of regulating a frequency change from 121.5 to 406 MHz in ELTs that won't work any better under water, upside down or embedded in the back of the pilot's head than the old ones will. What's really needed is a certification requirement to install a satellite-based tracking device in every new airplane and the phased -in requirement for equipage in the existing fleet. Why? Because they work better. They have to.
Instead of trying to trigger a signal when the airplane crashes, the device would have the simple task of failing at that moment, the precise location of its demise duly noted electronically, which would be enough. But perhaps it could even soldier on to provide an uplink for survivors to report their condition or advise of hazards awaiting rescue crews.
It means every flight would have to be tracked but that doesn't have to mean Big Brother will necessarily be watching if you sneak off fishing for the weekend. There's enough bandwidth, radio waves and server space available to have the data from the millions of flights that go without a hitch stored for a reasonable length of time but hidden from public view. The resulting database would allow search and rescue personnel to find the specific signal track they need and see where it goes black. After making a phone call to the number stored on that transmitter's unique signature, rescuers could make the decision to go directly to the scene of the problem rather than set up command posts and fly grid searches.
The technology is available and active in your cell phone, your computer, your GPS and even in some of the stuff you buy at the supermarket. How tough could it be to put it where it could do some real good?