Cutting-edge machines needed in MH370 search

KUALA LUMPUR - The next phase of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could see the introduction of new state-of-the-art equipment.

As the search-and-recovery (SAR) team adopts more radical and out-of-the-box approaches towards finding the missing plane, experts believe including vehicles that are usually not the norm in such situations could prove to be advantageous.

This is vital given the challenges posed by the weather and tough conditions in the Indian Ocean.

Universiti Sains Malaysia Associate Professor Dr Mohd Rizal Arshad said the new equipment could be utilised to include a combination of sonar technology and Seismic Reflection Profiling (SRP).

Sonar, or sound navigation and ranging, is used to develop nautical charts, locate underwater hazards for navigation, and for the search and mapping of objects on the seabed. SRP uses sound waves to image underground rock strata and is widely used in oil and gas exploration.

Rizal cited the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) REMUS 6000 and Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), or underwater rovers, as new equipment that could complement those which had already been used in the search.

The REMUS 6000 specialises in deep ocean search-and-survey and sea-floor mapping, producing highly accurate images. The device has been designed to enable operations at depths of 6,000m, compared with the Bluefin-21, which could only reach depths of 4,500m.

It is also known to have better stability underwater compared with Bluefin-21, which is prone to shifting locations due to rough underwater currents.

"Its versatile design allows long mission duration in shallow littoral areas," said Rizal, who specialises in underwater robotics technology.

Rizal said the Malaysian government should have access to the primary data on sea-floor mapping, as it needed to obtain comprehensive information.

Universiti Kuala Lumpur research and innovation head Associate Professor Captain Dr Mohd Harridon Mohamed Suffian said there was a possibility the Malaysian government would opt for ROVs to conduct the search.

ROVs are widely used by the offshore oil and gas industry for drilling support and subsea construction services to enable deep water exploration.

Harridon said ROVs were able to scour the seabed and produce a more comprehensive oceanographic map of the ocean floor, which is relatively unknown.

"It would be hard to map such a remote area. Therefore, 3D mapping should be done to examine if there are any unusual objects that could be related to the aircraft."

Harridon said ROVs could produce detailed maps and sift through mud, which can be 50m to 100m deep in parts of the Indian Ocean.

He said ROVs come with a host of features -- manipulators, sensors, Sonar, lights, cameras and tools for water temperature and sound velocity -- and transmits real-time data through cables attached to its vessel. It is also able to stay underwater for as long as electricity is available.

"Oil and gas companies use it to conduct mapping to explore potential sites for petroleum on the seabed. It is more effective than Bluefin-21 in terms of depth. It provides real-time flow of information, including video footage, compared with Bluefin-21, which needs to resurface after each 24-hour cycle."

Harridon said the meeting between a panel of experts in Canberra, Australia, today would likely seek to finalise the usage of ROVs from oil and gas companies and the mapping areas under the new phase of the search.

Meanwhile, an avionics engineer, who declined to be named, also vouched for the ROVs effectiveness and said the vehicle could reach depths of 7,000m.

Senior leaders from Malaysia, China and Australia will meet today in Canberra to discuss details for the new phase of the SAR in an expanded area involving the southern Indian Ocean.