More than three and a half years have passed since the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) disappeared possibly somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean, after deviating from its original flight path.
The airplane along with its 227 passengers and 12 crew members remain missing. While there have been reports of marine debris found on and off the coast of Africa and subsequently confirmed to be pieces of the missing airline, the majority of the aircraft is yet to be located.
A comprehensive survey of around 1,800km of the sea floor spanning more than two years and costing nearly US$200 million failed to yield any result. The search, one of the largest and costliest in aviation history, was finally called off in January 2017.
However, this week the Malaysian Government announced an agreement with Ocean Infinity to restart the search for the missing plane on a ‘no find no fee’ arrangement. This means that Ocean Infinity will only be paid for the survey if it manages to find new data points on the possible location of the plane. Australia will provide technical assistance to the Malaysian government and Ocean Infinity during the search operations.
The final terms and conditions are yet to be agreed with Ocean Infinity. An official announcement is expected only after deal is signed, Australia and China governments are on board and families of those on board the MH370 have been notified.
Ocean Infinity is an US-based seabed exploration company that employs multi-purpose vessels capable of longer duration surveys involving inspection, repairing or recovering discoveries. Fitted with sophisticated underwater scanning systems, these vessels can cover large and sometimes relatively inaccessible areas, negating the need of additional vessels, thereby improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of search missions.
Ocean Infinity’s autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) can collect high resolution data under 6000 m water depth. These AUVs are fitted on to unmanned surface vehicles (USV) that ensure accurate positioning. The drones can operate in shallow waters but come in to their own at extreme depths.
This is the not the first time drones have been brought in to aid the search of the missing aircraft. In October 2016, Chinese ship Dong Hai Jiu 101 was fitted with a video camera-equipped drone (christened Remora III) to examine various sonar contacts in a remote seabed west of Australia. The remotely operated drone was used to investigate some pieces of debris identified in deep tow operations. Earlier in April 2014, Ocean Shield (an Australian Defence Force vessel) deployed Bluefin 21, an autonomous underwater vehicle with side-scan sonar capabilities to search the seafloor.
The last underwater search (ended January 2017) led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau utilised deep sea sonar search to potentially narrow down the search area to the north of the previously primary search area in the Southern Indian Ocean.
The survey by Ocean Infinity is set to focus on this relatively unexplored part of the sea. They will have access to the data collected from the previous search missions. What remains to be seen is whether this renewed effort at locating the MH370 fares better than its predecessors.