Navy’s Bluefin-21 Drone Dives for MH370

BluefinOne 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.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • blight_

    NR-1 would’ve done the job, but we retired the platform without (public) replacement.

    • A.Physicist

      Far too deep for NR-1, or any non-specialized sub for that matter.

    • Bronco46

      NR-1 bottomed out at between 3000 & 3500 feet.

    • blight_

      Mea culpa. NR-1 indeed is publicly specced to ~3500 feet, though I still feel something like it would’ve been more useful than maritime patrol aircraft attempting to use people with binoculars to detect floating detrius.

  • oblatt22

    Actually the story in Asia is about the absence of American participation. While China has multiple ships and even places like Taiwan are visible we seem to be only represented by a small amount of towed equipment – one pinger locator only ? and a single P8.

    If it hadn’t been in the Australian area of responsibility would they even be being used at all ?

    A couple of popular conspiracy theories are about how we aren’t involved because we caused the crash. Far from being committed and living the the Pacific we have managed to position ourselves as untrustworthy interlopers into Asia.

    Looks like the Pacific pivot will remain firmly in port at Hawaii and San Diego.

  • 009

    Waste of time, they’ll find Amelia Earhart before they’ll find flight MH370. Look above ground.

    • tiger

      The pingers are in the ocean. There is no ground for miles.

  • Dickie Cockpit

    The Russians aren’t helping because they took the aircraft with secret information that Snowden the Traitor supplied. (This is also why Obama is helpless in Ukraine.)

    Think about it, what did everybody want when airliner hijackings began. A way to remotely control the aircraft to seize it back from the hijackers, or in this case the legitimate flight crew.

    • tiger

      This is not “Thunderball” & a airliner to China is exactly full of secret info.

      • Dickie Cockpit

        Duh-Whut?

        • tiger

          Not full of info….

          • Dickie Cockpit

            yeah, I didn’t mean the aircraft was full of secret info. I meant that the Russians hijacked it using ‘secret info’ that they received from Snowden. The pilot could have loaded flight info into the auto pilot but it doesn’t really fit the evidence. What I’m saying is the Russians loaded it remotely using ????? electronic warfare. Or the Chinese, they got to see Snowdens laptop too.

            Dickie

          • blight_

            Snowden doesn’t have a Magic Laptop.

            /shrug

          • Dickie Cockpit

            I’m going to assume humor?

            So no one thinks there is any way to have an effect on an aircraft’s avionics using advanced radar and other EW goodies?

          • tiger

            Why would Russia need to hijack a night flight to China?

  • hibeam

    In 1960 two guys went down 35,000 feet. And in 2014 the best we can do with an unmanned robot is 15,000 feet? What the hell is up with that? I understand this thing can map the ocean bottom, but c’mon Its been 54 years.

    • tiger

      What does one event have to do with the other? The missions are not he same. Nor is a manned craft the best option for basically a sonar search.

    • NathanS

      Where is this recorded? As far as I can see, the deep diving record using deep diving apparatus (solid pressure proof suits) is only 2000 feet, set by the US Navy in 2007.

      • hibeam

        The two guys went down in the Bathyscaphe Trieste. Other examples too. One guy went that deep by his lonesome in a mini sub. Must be the sonar mapping gear is difficult to send that deep, ya gotta send out the ping and receive the echo so its inherently a pressure sensitive arrangement.

    • tmb2

      Those guys went down in a capsule with the internal volume of a large bathtub. Their mission was just to see if it was possible. We haven’t done it again because there’s no purpose. There’s still significant technology and expense to get equipment down that far and have it survive and doing this kind of mission is a niche that doesn’t happen that often.

  • Frank896

    Obama, hell, he could not find Air Force one without a teleprompter. He should get Putin and Assad in Syria to give him his balls back. Why are we over there in the first place? It took two years to locate Air France 447 and they had a idea where it crashed.
    We know more about the moon than the oceans and earth is 2/3 to 3/4 water anyway. If it’s in the ocean it’s too deep. I don’t believe we ever got the correct info to start with. Oh, by the way where are the mighty Chinese? They’re so good let them find it. By the way, what war have they fought in the last 50 years? They do get the first lady to jump rope on TV though.

    • hibeam

      Dude.. that can’t be good for your Aorta.

  • skeptic

    Interesting that the Chinese think the pilot held the plane and passengers for ransom to get his relative (a big shot) out of jail but Malaysia wouldn’t play so he crashed it. They do not want to plane found because the recorder would show the radio traffic between him and them. Never heard about this on TV anywhere.
    Just like the SK ferry sinking, never heard about all the cars shifting and helped it to turn on it’s side have you?

    • tiger

      That makes no sense… There is no radio traffic about a ransom. Nor does flying off to no place make sense. As for the ferry? Common design issue with ferries.

  • Connor Cook

    Do we even have the slightest bit of evidence that its under the ocean? We’ve been looking how long?

    • ide

      The Bluefin-21 drone is useless for the job. These guys might be trying to set the stage for getting massive funding to “develop more capable undersea drones to enhance Navy’s rescue capabilities in war time scenarios.”

  • Andrew

    Time to start checking the northern arc of the assumed search vector,not just the south, down towards Perth.I still remain attracted to the idea that the plane looped back towards Malaysia somewhere between Penang and Langkawi as a result of an in-flight emergency,eschewing its KL point of departure because of high terrain on approach to that city.Jungle crash,mountain crash,crash landing….who knows?….Is the Malaysian military even conducting its own searches with helicopters and shore patrol vessels?.

  • skeptic

    SO, why doesn’t Malaysia and Indonesai release the “sensitive” reports they just wrote about the incident. More continued withhoilding of information. Again and again and again. More coverups. As for the pings: ever used a decoy to put you off track.

  • anthony

    It couldnt hurt looking on ground. Something has to pop up now or later?