16-Foot Drone Joins Search for Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

The Bluefin-21, a small autonomous underwater vehicle, is now the best hope for finding Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

Manufactured by Bluefin Robotics in Quincy, MA, this 16-foot long, 21-inch diameter torpedo-shaped drone went to work on Monday April 14 in the Indian Ocean assisting a massive ongoing air and sea search. The AUV is owned by Phoenix International Holdings, an undersea salvage company based in Largo, Maryland that provides operations and maintenance for the U.S. Navy’s undersea operations capability.

The search moved under the sea after a Chinese ship heard four distinct pings from what could have been black-box recorders in an area 960 miles northwest of Perth.

The Bluefin-21, which the U.S. Navy calls one of its best tools, weighs 1,650 pounds, uses nine battery packs that can last for over 24 hours, and has a 4-gigabyte flash drive for data.

The AUV can descend two and a half miles below the surface of the ocean and its missions can last up to 25 hours before needing to recharge its batteries. Each dive and ascent takes two hours each, leaving approximately 16 hours for the AUV to scour the ocean floor with a side scan sonar system on a pre-programmed route in a lawn-mowing like pattern. The hope is that the BlueFin-21 will cover 40 square miles a day. Once it’s surfaced, it takes four hours to unload the data.

The data that the Bluefin-21 gathers produces 3D sonar maps, and researchers are looking for any manufactured objects, typically with right angles that aren’t normally found in the ocean.

Unfortunately, in this area of the Indian Ocean, the floor is covered with foraminiferal ooze, a sludge that is formed by microscopic marine organisms. Some fear that the silt could be deep and soft enough to completely cover the plane. However, if anything resembling the plane is discovered, the Bluefin-21 can then go back and take high-resolution pictures.

Launched off the Ocean Shield, an Australian Defense vessel, the Bluefin-21 made its first attempt to search the unchartered Zenith Plateau, as the area is called, on April 14. Unfortunately, the submersible automatically shot back up after only six hours as it exceeded its 14,750-foot maximum depth. Nothing out of the ordinary was discovered on this maiden journey.

The second pass on April 15 was to an area not as deep, but it also ended early due to technical problems, and the data again did not show anything significant.

According to the Joint Agency Coordination Centre in Australia, the agency spearheading this search, the Bluefin-21 has since completed two additional full missions, with no findings of interest. As of this writing, a fifth mission is underway, as the Bluefin-21 reportedly dives deeper than it ever has in its attempt to locate the plane, which is putting the equipment at an elivated risk.

For the four completed missions, the Bluefin-21 searched approximately 42 square miles. With 230 square miles to be covered in the targeted search area, it could take be days or weeks before the drone covers this entire area.

Now into 40-plus days since the plane disappeared on March 8, this search and recovery mission is one of the most expensive in history, according to a CBS News report. It is estimated that $44 million has already been spent on what could be the most expensive recovery in aviation history. And CNN reports that a prolonged undersea search could cost nearly a quarter billion dollars.

While the undersea search is being conducted, a surface-level search also continues. On April 18, up to 11 military aircraft and 12 ships were part of the search on the surface.

Photo by LEUT Kelli Lunt/Australia Department of Defence via Getty Images

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