Search for Malaysian jet refocuses on drone scans of sea floor

April 18, 2014 - 9:57:33 am

SYDNEY:  A deep-sea drone completed its much-anticipated first full scan of the seabed in the remote Indian Ocean, the team looking for a missing Malaysian jetliner said yesterday, as an air and surface search became less likely to yield results.

Footage from a US Navy deep-sea drone is fast becoming the most important tool for a multinational team searching for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared from radar screens on March 8 with 239 people aboard. 

A sample taken from an oil slick in the same area, some 2,000kms west of the Australian city of Perth, is also being analysed. 

Authorities believe that is the most likely area where the missing jet hit the ocean after disappearing.

A series of “pings” recorded this month have led searchers to the remote stretch of ocean in the belief that the signals may have come from the plane’s black box recorders.

However, with no pings received in more than a week and the black box’s battery now 10 days past its approximate expiry date, authorities are relying on the drone. The “Bluefin-21” drone completed its first full 16-hour deployment at a depth of 4.5kms late Wednesday after a series of technical problems cut short the first two attempts.

“Bluefin-21 has searched approximately 90 square kilometres to date and the data from its latest mission is being analysed,” the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, the body running the search, said in a statement. On Monday, the search coordinator, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said the air and surface search for debris would likely end in three days as the operation shifted its focus to the largely unmapped area of ocean floor. 

However, authorities said yesterday up to 10 military aircraft, two civil aircraft and 11 ships would still search an area totalling about 40,000 square kilometres . That would suggest searchers, under pressure from the families of those on board the plane, still hold some hope of finding floating wreckage.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday as saying that “we believe that (underwater) search will be completed within a week or so. If we don’t find wreckage, we stop, we regroup, and we reconsider.”

Asked by Reuters yesterday to clarify Abbott’s comments to the newspaper, his office said he was only suggesting that authorities may change the area being searched by the Bluefin-21 drone, not that the search would be called off.

Malaysia’s defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, vowed that the search would continue even if there could be a pause to regroup and reconsider the best area to scour.             Reuters