Can a fleet of undersea robots designed in Massachusetts help solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?
They’ve done this kind of thing before. In 2011, robot subs from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tracked down the remains of an Air France plane that had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean two years earlier.
Now, the Navy is sending a robot built by Bluefin Robotics Inc. in Quincy to Australia, in the latest effort to track the Malaysian jet.
The undersea salvage company Phoenix International will operate the robot, according to a report from the US Naval Institute’s USNI News website.
On Monday, British investigators concluded Flight 370 had crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. That narrows the search area, but not nearly enough. One specialist said the searchers would have to be within 100 miles of the wreckage to have a reasonable chance of success.
Indeed, a Navy spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said on the service’s news website that the Bluefin robot won’t be used until the crash site can be more precisely estimated.
“In order for this technology to be useful, you have to have an identified area on the sea bottom that you want to go look at it,” Kirby told USNI News. “Right now, we’re not there.”
Bluefin Robotics declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Woods Hole institution said it has offered the use of its Remus robots for the search but that so far they have not been deployed. The famed oceanographic outfit declined to comment further.
In 2011, Woods Hole scientists used a trio of Remus 6000 submersible robots to find Air France 447 after three previous attempts failed to locate the downed plane. These torpedo-shaped devices can dive nearly 20,000 feet beneath the sea and can cruise at about 3 miles an hour for 16 hours on battery power.
Armed with a pair of side-scanning sonars, each Remus trolls back and forth across its chosen search area.
“They basically do a lawn-mowing kind of pattern,” said Milica Stojanovic, a Woods Hole researcher and electrical engineering professor at Northeastern University.
With each pass, the Remus stores a sonar image of the ocean floor in its memory.
At regular intervals, each sub surfaces to recharge its batteries and upload its data into computers on board a recovery ship. If any promising leads turn up, the Remus is sent back to the spot to take digital photographs that can confirm the find.
The search zone involved 3,900 square miles of ocean, several hundred miles off the coast of Brazil, according to WHOI. The wreckage was found nearly 2.5 miles down on the ocean bottom.
To lift wreckage from the seabed requires a different kind of robot, one that’s lowered from a cable. This machine has remotely controlled arms that can grab objects, such as an airplane’s flight data recorder.
If a robot finds the lost Malaysian plane, it will probably come from Massachusetts.
“Boston happens to be one of the major hubs of people who are building, designing, and operating those kinds of vehicles,” said Alan Beam, board member of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Application Center in Lee, N.H.
Remus’s manufacturer, Hydroid Inc., is owned by Kongsberg Group of Norway but is based in Pocasset.
Its Quincy rival, Bluefin Robotics, makes the Bluefin-21, a robot that can go as deep as 15,000 feet and can cruise for up to 25 hours at about 3.5 miles per hour. Last year, an advanced version sailed nonstop from Boston to New York, a 310 mile cruise, on a single battery charge.
But before any robotic equipment can be deployed, searchers must know where to put it.
On Monday, the British satellite radio company Inmarsat and Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch concluded the plane went down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, far from its destination of Beijing. But this is still too imprecise to launch the underwater searchers.
Finding floating wreckage would help. Debris and bodies from Air France 447 were found about five days after the crash. But by that time, the remains had been shifted by winds and ocean currents. In 2010, scientists from Woods Hole and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth used computer modeling to estimate the movements of the floating wreckage and track it back to its source. Their successful effort put the robot sub team in the right part of the ocean to find the missing plane.
But so far, there has been no confirmed sighting of any part of the Malaysia Airlines plane, more than two weeks since it disappeared. And even if wreckage is found, it’s been adrift for so long that calculating its point of origin will be a massive challenge.
Getting close to the actual crash site is essential. The submarine search for Air France Flight 447 covered took 61 days. The latest search area identified by authorities in Australia stretched some 26,000 square miles. Covering that amount of territory with the robots would take months, possibly longer.
Dana Yoerger, a senior scientist at Woods Hole, said that before the robots can be launched searchers must pinpoint the correct patch of ocean to check.
“You certainly have to be within a hundred miles” to have much chance of locating the wreck, Yoerger said, itself a pretty large area. And with so few clues, finding the right place to search is a daunting task.
“We’ve got to get lucky,” said Yoerger.