How Naval Drones Can Help in the Search for the Missing Malaysian Flight MH370

Even days after it was announced that Malaysian Flight MH 370 ended over the Indian Ocean, the search for it continues, especially as authorities would like to recover the “black box” the soonest time possible before it expires, so as to solve the greatest aviation mystery in the 21st century.

Just fresh from the press was the news that a multinational fleet of planes and ships: ten aircraft from six countries — Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States including five Chinese ships and an Australian naval vessel were rushing to a new search zone after receiving a “credible new lead” that the plane was flying at a much faster speed than originally thought, which would result in increased usage of fuel and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean.” Read more here

One article noted that the Boeing 777 has such a long and impressive record, that its disappearance in this age of modern aviation is truly a mystery. This is what makes it absolutely essential that, no matter how long it takes, the reasons that made this airplane disappear have to be found. Read here

As the search involves scouring the deep ocean, though as to the new lead, it looks like the search area is nearer land, the idea of using underwater drones in helping solve the mysterious disappearance of MH370 has been making a buzz.

Experts on unmanned naval systems, or naval drones describe what takes place once crash debris is found in the ocean. According to an article on NavalDrones, salvage experts will use predictive modeling software to determine an approximate location of where the aircraft actually went down. Then, if it is determined that one or more of the regional navies involved will search for the black box, a towed pinger locator will be deployed from a ship, along with a towed side scan sonar or deep-water capable unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). This equipment can be flown in rapidly and deployed from a Navy salvage ship or other appropriate vessel – like Australia’s hydrographic survey ships – in the area. In the case of the U.S. Navy, the Supervisor of Salvage is responsible for these operations. According to SUPSALV, “The Pinger Locator is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, generally from 1 – 5 knots depending on the depth. The received acoustic signal of the pinger is transmitted up the cable and is presented audibly, and can be output to either a Oscilloscope, or Signal Processing Computer. The operator monitors the greatest signal strength and records the navigation coordinates. This procedure is repeated on multiple track lines until the final position is triangulated.” Read more here

Naval drones are said to be really useful in ocean depths as deep as the Indian Ocean which averages 4,000 feet. The above article said that for those depths, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), such as the U.S. Navy’s CURV will be deployed to pick up the black box and any small pieces of the aircraft wreckage. ROVs have also be used in some cases to recover any human remains from deep water.

The LA Times reported the other day that the United States is deploying its advanced underwater drone built with sonar equipment. The Bluefin-21 underwater drone was built by Bluefin Robotics Corporation, Massachusetts, and dives as deep as 14,763 feet. It can carry side-scan sonar arrays or a still camera, both designed to create detailed imagery of what lies beneath the surface.

According to the LA Times news article, unlike aerial drones, robotic submarines are unable to receive satellite commands when submerged. Instead, they execute preprogrammed search patterns, aided by an onboard detection system that helps avoid hazardous sea-bottom topography. After the craft is hauled back aboard the ship, eight contractors and two naval officers will analyze its data. Read more

In the coming weeks, it remains to be seen as to how large an extent underwater drone technology will have done its best in the search and rescue of the missing plane and its passengers.

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