One of the most advance undersea drones contracted by the U.S. Navy is getting the workout of its robotic life this week as it plunges ever deeper into the Indian Ocean in search of missing Malaysian Airline’s flight MH370’s locator.
The Bluevin-21 has been on the scene in the Indian Ocean for about two weeks as searchers from more than two dozen countries have been listening for and attempting to triangulate faint signals from the plane’s flight recorder, the so-called “black box.”
“The Navy has hired Phoenix (under our contract with NAVSEA) to bring our AUV to Australia in support of the search,” Phoenix International spokesman Pete LeHardy said.
On Friday, the 16-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle dove beyond its depth rating of 14,765 feet in search of the box, putting its sophisticated technology at risk of damage.
“This is the first time the Bluefin-21 has descended to this depth,” Navy spokesman Lt. JG Daniel Marciniak said in a statement. “Diving to such depths does carry with it some residual risk to the equipment.”
Navy searchers have been frustrated by an automatic safety mechanism on the AUV that kicks in when it goes deeper than its maximum depth of 14,763 feet, according to a report Friday by Reuters. At that depth the bright yellow AUV automatically returns to the surface.
The AUV is being monitored at the scene by the Navy and Phoenix International, the company that owns the Bluefin-21 and is providing support to the Navy under contract. Built by Bluefin Robotics of Quincy, Mass., the AUV’s payload includes “side-scan” sonar that the Navy hopes will locate the box in a search area now encompassing about 1,200 miles.
The Malaysian plane is believed to have gone down in the vast Indian Ocean on March 8 after a radical change of course from its Beijing, China, destination. The search area now is about 2,000 miles west of Perth, Australia.
The Bluefin-21 is believed to be the best hope now to locate the box, since the black box’s battery life of two weeks has passed and no signals are being picked up, the Reuters report said.
The Navy said earlier it would only deploy the Bluefin-21 once there was a “high degree of confidence” that they were in the general area where the plane went down.
The Navy’s search for the black box included deployment of its towed pinger locator system, the TPL-25, which it has used for years to locate downed military and commercial aircraft through the pings emitted from their flight recorders.
The TPL-25 uses a towed, underwater hydrophone, a tow cable and a shipboard processor suite manned by a team of specialists. When it picks up a signal the team can approximate the black box location through triangulation.
Next step would be to deploy the Bluefin-21 to that area, where its sonar or still camera can determine the exact location, according to a description of the process put out by the navy.
The Bluefin-21’s effective range depends on several factors, the Navy said, including water depth in the search area, the contours of the sea floor and the size of the material it is looking for – in this case the flight recorder. For that reason the Navy said it could not provide a standard maximum range, but offered – as a rough estimate – being able to search about 40 square miles per day.
But the Navy said that estimate could change, depending on the undersea environment.