MH370 search to “hit the ground running”

January 12, 2018
MH370 report draws fire
The Hugin autonomous underwater vehicles used to search for MH370. Photo: Ocean Infinity.

The sophisticated ship tasked with finding missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370  expects to “hit the ground running” as it steams towards the search area after conducting a series of sea trials off the coast of Africa.

The trials included testing the ability of Seabed Constructor’s  Hugin autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to detect targets and debris as well as a dive to more than 5800m (19,029ft)  to check new additions to its flotilla of eight torpedo-shaped submersibles.

Deep sea search company Ocean Infinity also ran a test with all eight AUVs operating simultaneously from the ship, the Seabed Constructor.

“Essentially we needed to put everything through the paces before we got to the MH370 site,’’ a report from the ship sent Thursday and posted by MH370 independent group member Victor Iannello said. “We’ve found and corrected a few issues, which makes this well worth the time spent.

“This testing is due to be wrapped up late tonight or early tomorrow morning, we will then steam to the ATSB box and hit the ground running.”

The ship is due to arrive at the search area late next week and, under a deal struck with the Malaysian Government,  US-based Ocean Infinity will not receive any compensation unless it finds the wreckage of the plane within 90 days.

MH370 search hit the ground running
The bridge of the Seabed Constructor. Photo: Ocean Infinity video.

It will begin in a 25,000 sq, km area defined in 2016 by a meeting of experts in Australia and later refined by drift analysis from the CSIRO.

The experts recommended that the first search continue but a tripartite meeting of government ministers from Malaysia, China, and Australia shut it down in January last year.

They vowed not to resume search unless there was credible new information which could be used to identify the aircraft’s position, although they failed to define what this meant.

The Malaysian Government has since had change of heart with Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai telling reporters this week there was an 85 percent probability of finding the wreckage in the search zone.

Drift modeling and an analysis of satellite imagery by a team headed by CSIRO scientist Dr David Griffin significantly boosted confidence among Australian experts that the wreckage of the Boeing 777, which went missing in March 2014, is in the southern half of a 25,000 sq. km.

The scientists identified a location at latitude 35.6°S and longitude 92.8°E, near the seventh arc defined by satellite data, as the most likely location for the missing plane and the search is expected to start in this area. This is just outside an area already searched.

They said other nearby locations east off the 7th arc were also possible and there were a range of less likely locations on the western side of the arc, near 34.7°S 92.6°E and 35.3°S 91.8°E.

The deal is structured so the company receives $US20 million if it finds the plane in a 5000 sq. km primary search area, $US30m if it finds it in a subsequent 10,000 sq. km secondary search area and $US50m if it finds it another 10,000 sq km tertiary search area.

The company says it is capable of scanning 1200 sq. kms per day using the eight Hugin AUVs equipped with an array of sophisticated sensors that include side scan and synthetic aperture sonar, a multi-beam echo sounder, a sub-bottom profiler and an HD camera.

A similar submersible was used in the previous search but in this case up to eight will be launched and search in parallel.

The Hugins, described as highly maneuverable and stable, will be launched directly from the mothership which will use an acoustic modem to communicate with them as they search for the debris field.

Each submersible is powered by lithium polymer batteries that allows them to remain on station for up to 60 hours.

Apart from occasional pings to update the Hugin’s  inertial navigation systems and keep them on course, the AUVs will keep their findings stored on an onboard hard-drive to be downloaded on their return.

The use of the multiple submersibles means Ocean Infinity could feasibly, subject to the areas sometimes fierce weather and the need to resupply,  complete a search of the ATSB’s 25,000 sq. kms in the first month. This gives it the to option to move into other areas if the plane is not found.

Some experts have suggested the debris may be north of the 25,000 sq. km zone, possibly to an area around 30°S,  and if a wider search proves necessary the Malaysians have agreed to pay Ocean Infinity $US70m if the plane is found.

The Seabed Constructor is capable of recovering debris from the ocean floor but a decision on whether it proceeds to do so is up to the Malaysians.

MH370 search hit ground running
The Seabed Constructor. Photo: Ocean Infinity.

Top priority will be given to recovering the so-called “black boxes” – the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder and the quick access recorder.

Using the Seabed Constructor to do this would be a logical move and having the ship already on station makes it what experts describe as an “asset of opportunity” if the black boxes are to be retrieved before the winter weather sets in.

Although they have been at the bottom of the sea for almost four years under immense pressure, the recorders are built to withstand extremes and experts believe it will be possible to extract data from them and probably other memory chips in the the Boeing 777s avionics.

Flight data recorders are usually double-wrapped in titanium or stainless steel and tested to withstand up to 1500 times the force of gravity and to be able to withstand water pressure at 20,000ft (6096m) for 30 days.

There are also precedents for this sort of situation.

The recorders from Air France flight 447,  An Airbus A330 which plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009,  were readable despite being at a depth of  3980m (13,000 feet)  for almost two years.

Pressure is the biggest problem: at a depth of 5000m (16,404ft)  it is 500 times the pressure at sea level or 7114 lbs per square inch. The lack of currents, low levels of oxygen and cold temperatures at such great depths are expected to help preserve other parts of the plane as well as the bodies of the 239 passengers and crew.

The move by Ocean Infinity to take on the MH370 search is not so much a roll of the dice as an informed bet, although one with high stakes. One “rough estimate’ puts the daily operating costs of the ship, personnel, and the sophisticated Hugin robots at about $US150,000 a day.

As the video below shows, it is an impressive operation.

The move comes after the company was extensively briefed on the data gleaned during the ATSB’s initial two-year search as well as the projections of others such as University of Western Australia Professor of coastal oceanography Charitha Pattiaratchi and the Independent group of experts.

The initial 120,000 sq. km search failed to find the plane but this was in an area defined before the arrival of debris allowed more informed drift modeling.

While there is some variance in where the parties think the debris field lies, they all point to the same general area.

Dr Griffin says nothing has come to light since last year to affect the CSIRO findings on the most likely site for the MH370 wreckage.

“From everything that we’ve done,  that is the most likely place,’’ he told AirlineRatings, noting it was not possible to say where the plane was with absolute certainty.

“It’s impossible to know what could possibly be wrong with any of the clues that we used.

“They’ve all got assumptions which could turn out to be false, but we know it’s the best shot at it and that’s it’s worth doing.”

Among those most desperate for answers —and an end to the speculation and wild theories regarding the plane’s disappearance —  are the families of the MH370 victims.

Support group MH370 has applauded the Malaysian Government for concluding the agreement and Ocean Infinity for its “bold offer” to search on a “no cure, no fee” basis.

“It is our fervent hope that the search yields results, MH370 said in a statement. “While it may not bring our loved ones back into our midst, we wish for the answers that will let matters rest, and to make civil aviation safer.’’

The group called on the Malaysian Government to provide regular updates and to consult with families on a recovery effort if the aircraft is found.

“In the event the search by Ocean Infinity is unfruitful, we ask of the Malaysia to be open to a similar “no cure, no fee” search proposals from other parties or initiate a prepaid search if new evidence is found,’’ they added.

The sad fact is, however, that if this search is unsuccessful the trail will have grown well and truly cold.