Un­der­wa­ter drones used in last-ditch search for MH370

Sunday News - - WORLD -

SYD­NEY A cou­ple of weeks be­fore Christ­mas, a di­verse group gath­ered in a Lon­don ho­tel to con­sider an au­da­cious gam­ble to solve the world’s great­est avi­a­tion mys­tery – know­ing that a thou­sand-day hunt that had cost more than NZ$150 mil­lion had yielded noth­ing.

Those in the room in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Lon­don-based global satel­lite net­work In­marsat, air­craft maker Boe­ing, Aus­tralian air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and a lit­tle-known Amer­i­can ex­plo­ration com­pany that has leased the world’s most ad­vanced civil­ian ocean sur­vey ship.

They are bet­ting that within 90 days, the 8000-tonne Se­abed Con­struc­tor can find Flight MH370, the Malaysia Air­lines Boe­ing 777 that van­ished in March 2014 with 239 pas­sen­gers and crew.

The sur­vey ship, which has a large he­li­copter land­ing pad, an ar­ray of spher­i­cal an­ten­nae, a re­cov­ery crane that can lift 250 tonnes, and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, a fleet of un­der­wa­ter drones, slipped out of Dur­ban, South Africa four days ago.

It is now pow­er­ing east across the In­dian Ocean to­wards lat­i­tude 35°S, the re­gion where most of the ex­perts gath­ered in Lon­don say they think MH370 must be ly­ing, north of the pre­vi­ous search area, at a depth of per­haps five or six kilo­me­tres.

In about 10 days the ship’s crew will be­gin look­ing for the air­liner, SWIRESEABED.COM which dis­ap­peared af­ter mys­te­ri­ously re­vers­ing course early into its overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bei­jing.

Se­abed Con­struc­tor’s op­er­a­tor, Hous­ton-based sea floor ex­pert Ocean In­fin­ity, has struck a deal with the Malaysian govern­ment that will earn the com­pany about US$70 mil­lion, but only if it finds the air­craft’s re­mains.

The 90 days the crew have in which to find the wreck­age roughly runs from Jan­uary to early April, when the south­ern In­dian Ocean’s no­to­ri­ously foul weather eases enough for ships to stay far out at sea for longer.

Ocean In­fin­ity says its bet that it can find MH370 in 12 weeks, when a se­abed search co­or­di­nated by the Aus­tralian govern­ment found noth­ing in more than two years, is not the long shot it might ap­pear.

Based on further stud­ies com­mis­sioned by the Aus­tralian Trans­port Safety Bureau, which re­lied on more pre­cise anal­y­sis of MH370’s fi­nal hours ob­tained from sparse satel­lite data and Boe­ing flight sim­u­la­tors, there is ex­pert con­sen­sus that the lost jet is within the new search zone.

That like­li­hood was bol­stered by the searchers’ first big break – the dis­cov­ery, 508 days af­ter the air­craft van­ished, of a bar­na­cle­cov­ered flap­eron, a large wing com­po­nent, on a re­mote beach on the In­dian Ocean is­land of Re­u­nion.

The Aus­tralian in­ves­ti­ga­tors ob­tained an­other 777 flap­eron from Boe­ing and set it adrift to de­ter­mine the speed and di­rec­tion it moved in ocean cur­rents. Work­ing back­wards from where the MH370 piece was dis­cov­ered, they found that it had al­most cer­tainly drifted west to Re­u­nion, from where the new search will be con­cen­trated.

In ad­di­tion to start­ing with much bet­ter in­tel­li­gence, Ocean In­fin­ity says it has a far su­pe­rior ar­moury than the pre­vi­ous search. That re­lied pri­mar­ily on cum­ber­some deep-tow sonars teth­ered to ships with ca­bles up to 10km long, which scanned only about 500 square km of se­abed a day.

Se­abed Con­struc­tor will search the se­abed with six un­manned, un­teth­ered sub­ma­rine-like search ve­hi­cles that can cover a com­bined 1200 sq km a day and dive to a depth of 6km. Each ves­sel is six me­tres long and has a ti­ta­nium sphere to pro­tect its ar­ray of elec­tron­ics from the pres­sure of the deep ocean. The Times

The world’s most ad­vanced civil­ian ocean sur­vey ship, the Se­abed Con­struc­tor, is head­ing to the south­ern In­dian Ocean to try to find the re­mains of Malaysia Air­lines Flight MH370.

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