April 15, 2014 in Nation/World

Malaysia plane search area too deep for robo-submarine

Margie Mason Associated Press
 

PERTH, Australia – The search area for the missing Malaysian jet has proved too deep for a robotic submarine which was hauled back to the surface of the Indian Ocean less than halfway through its first seabed hunt for wreckage and the all-important black boxes, authorities said today.

Search crews sent the Bluefin 21 deep into the Indian Ocean on Monday to begin scouring the seabed for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 after failing for six days to detect any signals believed to be from its black boxes.

But after only six hours of its planned 16-hour mission on the sea bed, the autonomous underwater vehicle exceeded its maximum depth limit of 15,000 feet and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface, the search coordination center said in a statement. What if anything it might have discovered during the six-hour search was still being analyzed, it added.

The Bluefin 21 will resume the search today when weather conditions permit, it said.

Search authorities knew that the primary wreckage from Flight MH370 was likely lying at the limit of the Bluefin’s dive capabilities. Deeper diving submersibles have been evaluated, but none is yet available in the search area.

The sub would have been programmed to return to the surface once it exceeded the 15,000-foot limit, but a safety margin would also have been included to protect the device from damage if it went a bit deeper, said Stefan Williams, a professor of marine robotics at the University of Sydney.

“Maybe some areas where they are doing the survey are a little bit deeper than they are expecting,” he said. “They may not have very reliable prior data for the area, so they have a general idea. But there may be some variability on the sea floor that they also can’t see from the surface.”

Meanwhile, officials were investigating an oil slick about 3.4 miles from the area where the last underwater sounds were detected, said Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search off Australia’s west coast.

Crews have collected an oil sample and are sending it back to Australia for analysis, a process that will take several days. Houston said it does not appear to be from any of the ships in the area but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about its source.

The Bluefin 21 can create a three-dimensional sonar map of any debris on the ocean floor. But the search in this area is more challenging because the seabed is covered in silt that could potentially cover part of the plane.

The search moved below the surface after crews picked up a series of underwater sounds over the past two weeks that were consistent with signals from an aircraft’s black boxes, which record flight data and cockpit conversations. The devices emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but their batteries only last about a month and are now believed dead.

“Today is day 38 of the search,” Houston told a news conference on Monday. “We haven’t had a single detection in six days, so I guess it’s time to go under water.”

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