Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 update: Deep-sea search begins with deployment of underwater drone

No black box signals heard since Tuesday, prompting searchers to launch the US Navy Bluefin-21 autonamous sub

By Sarah Gray
April 14, 2014 5:35PM (UTC)
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In this April 4, 2014, photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Defence vessel Ocean Shield tows a pinger locator in the first search for the missing flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in the southern Indian Ocean. Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, was investigating a sound it picked up. (AP Photo/ADF, LEUT Kelly Lunt, HO) EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Leut Kelly Lunt)

The deep-sea underwater hunt has begun for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is the head of the joint search effort, told reporters in Perth, that a crew is preparing to launch the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, U.S. Navy Bluefin-21, "as soon as possible."

Last week four signals, potentially coming from the plane's black box, were detected by the Australian ship Ocean Shield, towing a U.S. Navy black box detector. The plane's black box has two recorders -- one for voice, the other for data. Each is equipped with a beacon that activates upon contact with water giving off signals of 37.5 kilohertz.


No signals have been heard since last Tuesday, prompting officials to believe that the black box's battery may have died. "Today is day 38 of the search. The guaranteed shelf-life of the batteries on the aircraft black boxes is 30 days." Houston said. "Despite the lack of further detections, the four signals previously acquired taken together constitute the most promising lead we have in the search for MH370."

The search team hoped to utilize the Ocean Shield for as long as possible to potentially detect more pings, and further narrow the location of the black box. With only the four "pings" detected last week, investigators have been able to narrow down the search area to which the Bluefin-21 will be deployed.

According to Houston, the Bluefin-21's missions will be a minimum of 24 hours long: two hours to deploy to the bottom of the ocean, 16 hours to search, two hours to resurface and four hours to download all of the data. "The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle in sight scan sonar mode transmits an active pulse which produces a high resolution, three dimensional map of the sea floor," Houston explained. It will first search a surface area of about 15 square miles.


According to CBC News, "The Bluefin sub takes six times longer to cover the same area as the ping locator, and the two devices can't be used at the same time." Last week it was reported that the Bluefin-21 could take up to six weeks or two months to search the same area that the Ocean Shield was searching. Houston warned that the search would be a "slow and painstaking process."

"I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not," Houston warned. "However, this is the best lead we have and it must be pursued vigorously."

He also announced that the Ocean Shield detected an oil slick approximately 18,000 feet down-wind/down-sea from where pings were previously detected. A half gallon was collected to be analyzed, but it could be days before investigators know if it is from the plane.


Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and the 239 people onboard, disappeared on March 8 during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Strange circumstances have surrounded the missing flight including a loss of communication, and a sharp veering off course. It was determined several weeks ago, after sophisticated satellite analysis, that the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean.

The search team continue to comb the area roughly 1,400 miles northwest of Perth for any floating debris from the flight. Twelve aircraft and 15 ships were involved in the search. Houston said, "As I have said before, aircraft wreckage needs to be visually identified before we can say with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370."


h/t CBC News, Joint Agency Coordination Center

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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