Stakes raised: 90 days to locate MH370

By on 15 January, 2018

A flaperon from MH370 (foreground) with a Boeing 777 flaperon used for drift modelling research on the MH370 search operation (background). Image supplied by CSIRO.

Texas-based firm Ocean Infinity could reap up to $70 million for locating wreckage — or no fee at all if it cannot. 

A new chapter in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has begun with the announcement of Ocean Infinity’s contract to search for the missing flight on a ‘no cure, no fee’ arrangement.

The announcement follows the suspension of the joint Malay-Chinese-Australian search for the missing plane in January 2017, following almost three years of intensive, but ultimately fruitless search efforts to locate the fuselage and flight recorders at an estimated cost of $200 million.

The Ocean Infinity-operated vessel Seabed Constructor is in transit to the search area and is expected to begin its search operations with its fleet of eight AUVs by January 17. While the negotiation of this contract has been speculated and reported on previously, the announcement of the contract terms on January 10 suggests a high degree of confidence on the part of the firm.

It also represents the Malaysian government’s desire to conclude the investigation — and one of contemporary aviation’s greatest mysteries — as soon as humanly possible.

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As the announcement of the contract negotiations between the Malaysian government and Ocean Infinity was first publicly announced in October 17, Malaysian authorities consulted with next-of-kin of those aboard MH370, distributing advice which contained reference to “several proposals from interested parties to search for MH370. This include an offer by a company known as Ocean Infinity on a No Cure No Fee basis.”

“These offers have been thoroughly assessed by the team and the Governments of Australia and China have been informed of this in line with the spirit of tripartite cooperation. In this regard, the Government of Malaysia has given the permission for the response team to proceed negotiating the terms and conditions with Ocean Infinity.”

Federal minister for infrastructure and transport Darren Chester responded, releasing a muted statement acknowledging the Malaysian government’s decision and pledging Australia’s full cooperation.

I acknowledge the announcement that the Malaysian Government is entering into an agreement with Ocean Infinity, to search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The Malaysian Government has accepted an offer from Ocean Infinity to search for the missing plane, entering into a ‘no find no fee’ arrangement.

Malaysia’s decision to proceed with the search shows the commitment to find MH370.

While I am hopeful of a successful search, I’m conscious of not raising hopes for the loved ones of those on board.

Ocean Infinity will focus on searching the seafloor in an area that has previously been identified by experts as the next most likely location to find MH370.

Australia, at Malaysia’s request, will provide technical assistance to the Malaysian Government and Ocean Infinity.”

Ocean Infinity will scan the area identified by the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) as the next most likely area for MH370, which was informed by the CSIRO’s sophisticated drift modelling — a vindication of the science and data informing the Australian-led portion of the search in the Indian Ocean, despite its controversial cancellation by the Malaysian government.

Current analysis places the most likely site of the MH370 fuselage close to the ‘seventh arc’, which shows possible locations of the plane at the time of the seventh detected radar ping. Image supplied by Geoscience Australia.

According to ABC reporting, new analysis of the drift modelling data and debris pattern have greatly narrowed the area of interest. A source close to the investigation says only one of the five auto pilot settings — constant magnetic heading (CMH) — would have lead to a crash site at latitude 35S, where the ocean current at the time ran towards Africa, not Australia.

Other evidence in the weeks and months after the plane disappeared  compelled the Australian-led team to search a 120,000-square-kilometre area around 36 degrees or further south, which ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Speaking to ABC News following the announcement of the new search for the lost plane, Dr David Griffin, who led the drift analysis for CSIRO, stood by his team’s modelling and gave an account of the newly-narrowed perimeter of interest, covering an area of 25,000 square kilometres.

“The oceanographic reason for why 35 [degrees south] is more likely than say 34, or 33, or 32, is that at all those latitudes the current is going to the east,” Dr Griffin said.

“So if the crash had been in any of those latitudes then there’d be a high chance of at least one or two things turning up in Australia. Whereas there’ve been 20 or 30 or so items turned up in Africa, and not a single one come to Australia,” he said.

“Once you start looking in the vicinity of 36 to 32, then 35 is the only option.”

Ocean Infinity’s fleet of eight ‘free flying’, or untethered AUVs are equipped with a broad range of sensors: side scan sonar, multi-beam echosounder, sub-bottom profiler, HD camera, conductivity/temperature/depth sensor, self-compensating magnetometer, synthetic aperture sonar and a turbidity sensor. Operating from the Seabed Constructor, the AUVs are capable of ‘flying’ at depths between 5 and 6,000 metres.

A rendering of the Seabed Constructor, and HUGIN ‘fre flying’ AUVs. Image supplied by Ocean Infinity.

Commenting on the announcement of the formalised search agreement, Ocean Infinity CEO Oliver Plunkett appeared confident at his team’s prospects for locating the wreckage.

“We are pleased that our offer to continue the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has been accepted by the Government of Malaysia, who I would like to thank for giving us the opportunity,” he said.

“Whilst there can be no guarantees of locating the aircraft, we believe our system of multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously is well suited to the task at hand.  I wish our team the best of luck in their endeavors and sincerely hope that we will be able to play a part in providing some answers to the many people affected by this tragedy.”

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