Robots Aid in Search of Missing Malaysian Jet

An underwater robot dispatched by Bluefin Robotics is on deck, ready to aid in the intensive search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane that went missing in March.

The US Navy has sent the Bluefin-21 autonomous robot from the Quincy, Mass.-based company to Perth, Australia, for possible deployment off the Western coast of Australia, where those who have been searching for the plane for several weeks believed it may have gone down, Bluefin CEO David Kelly told Design News.

"The Navy asked Phoenix International, the owner of the Bluefin 21, to mobilize the underwater robot to Perth Australia for potential use in the search," he told us in an email.

Malaysian officials made the request for the Bluefin and also a towed pinger locator the Navy plans to send to aid with the search from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to a
Department of Defense (DoD) press statement.

Flight 370 Malaysian Airlines 777, scheduled to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared from air traffic control radar March 8 and has not yet been recovered. For weeks various theories surfaced about what may have happened to the plane, even one that suggested it landed somewhere safely. But on March 24, officials connected with the search confirmed it had been lost and that they had narrowed down the search area to the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, which was nowhere near the course the plane was meant to take.

The Navy believes the Bluefin's side-scanning sonar and a multi-beam echo sounder technology may be useful in locating the debris or objects from the plane in the water, according to the DoD. The Bluefin-21 is 16 feet long, 21 inches in diameter, can dive to 14,700 feet, and can stay in the water 25 hours at a time if traveling at three knots.

Bluefin's Kelly said the technology on the robot has the potential to search an area that would be inaccessible any other way. "We are using state-of-the-art underwater robots to search and understand a part of the world no one else can get to," he told us. "Our underwater robot can go 2.5 miles below the surface of the ocean to map the sea floor and its sonars can image 40 square miles in a day to provide data to aid in the search."

The Navy also is sending a pinger locator along with the Bluefin in the hopes of locating the plane's flight recorder -- better known as the black box -- to help in a search that has been troublesome since the outset and has turned up very little on the plane so far. "We don't have anything to indicate where the aircraft is, or even that it is down at the bottom of the ocean," Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon, according to the DoD press statement.

We've told you about robots like the Bluefin-21 before, which are used in a number of undersea applications to
track sharks, gather data inside a hurricane, and perform other ocean-going surveillance and reconnaissance due to their ability to travel autonomously underwater for long periods of time.

It's not entirely certain the Bluefin will be deployed to help search for the Malaysian jet, but once it arrives near the believed crash site it will remain on an Australian commercial ship ready to be sent into action, according to the Navy.

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