Deep-sea robots needed to retrieve black box from lost Malaysian jet

Delila James | @@delilalaw| April 03, 2014

Deep-sea robots needed to retrieve black box from lost Malaysian jet

The airplane remains missing.

Despite the 10 planes and nine ships in the Indian Ocean searching for missing MH370, no one has yet seen any wreckage. It was announced last night that the British submarine HMS Tireless is joining the search effort, the Mirror reports. The United States hasn’t publicly announced a similar move, although there are reports that the U.S. Navy could be secretly in the area.

In addition, investigators may need to deploy robot submarines to look for the airplane’s black box. If located, they may learn what caused the plane to malfunction.

In 2011, unmanned robot subs, or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), were vital in the search for the black box from a lost Air France jet two years after the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. The AUVs located the crashed jet’s skeleton and its all-important black box. The information contained in the black box is usually the only opportunity investigators have to find out what went wrong.

But there were critical differences in the search for the Air France plane. For one thing, the search area was quite a bit smaller than is the case with the downed Malaysian jetliner. Also, in the Air France search effort, pieces of wreckage were spotted within days of the crash, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP). Even so, it took two years and four underwater search missions before an AUV from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution located the downed plane. That deep sea robot was equipped with side-scan sonar and found the downed plane under nearly four kilometers of water, AP reports.

“Air France 447 is a bit different from Malaysian Air 370 in that we had a few more clues to work with,” said Dave Gallo, who led the Woods Hole search team. Woods Hole is an independent research institution and has offered to join the current search effort, but as yet haven’t been asked to help, according to the AP.

There is big problem though with using AUVs in the MH370 search: the search area must be narrowed before they can be used–and that depends on finding wreckage.

After more than three weeks of searching over more than 22,000 square miles of ocean, Malaysian officials warned Wednesday that wreckage may never be found and the reason for the crash may remain a mystery.

Malaysian police have ruled out any involvement by passengers on MH370 after clearing them of hijacking, sabotage, and mental illness, the Mirror reports.

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