Underwater drones used in last-ditch search for MH370
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.