MH370: How can unmanned submarines help in the search of the missing plane?

By Alexander Saltarin | Apr 03, 2014 10:35 PM EDT

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) may soon lend a helping robotic hand to the search teams looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370.

Back in 2009, an Air France plane suddenly crashed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The Air France Flight 447 is widely considered as the deadliest accident in the history of Air France and none of the 228 passengers and crew onboard the aircraft lived to tell the tale. While parts of the aircraft were found five days after the incident, the investigation of the crash took a while due to the fact that the section of the plane containing the black boxes was nowhere to be found. The missing sections of the plane were found by a Remus 6000 AUV operated by a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Now, experts say that the same technique could be used to find the missing MH370.

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"The REMUS 6000 - the largest of the REMUS vehicles - provides ample space and power for even the most challenging applications," says the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "The AUV has the ability to travel farther, go deeper, and carry a more complex set of sensors, but it boasts the same proven software and electronic subsystems found in the highly successful REMUS 100 AUV."

The current search area marked out by the MH370 search teams covers 123,000 square miles. Moreover, the search area also lies in a swathe of the Indian Ocean that is currently littered with various flotsam, jetsam and garbage unrelated to the missing aircraft. The search teams are also worried about the fact that the ocean floor in the vicinity of the search area is covered by a thick and murky layer of dead plankton and the deepest part of the area is around 19,000 feet below the ocean's surface.

Considering the conditions of the search, sending down human divers is not very practical. Moreover, shipborne instruments may have difficulty accurately scanning the ocean floor in some of the deeper parts of the search area. In cases like this, using AUVs make help expedite the search. As with the doomed Air France Flight 447, searchers are considering using Remus AUVs from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"This efficient AUV can be used for numerous exploration and mapping purposes, including hydrographic surveys, environmental monitoring, debris field mapping, search and salvage operations, and scientific sampling and mapping," says the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This is the same type of AUV that found the Air France aircraft. However, there are a number of concerns regarding the use of AUVs. First of all, searchers knew the approximate location of the Air France plane. This is not the case with the MH 370. Secondly, the deepest part of the search area is 19,000 deep and many AUVs like the U.S. Navy Bluefin-21 can only dive a maximum of 14,800 feet. Luckily, the Remus 6000 has a maximum diving depth of 19,700 feet.

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