Deep submersible: Workers hoisting back the ‘Artemis’ autonomous underwater vehicle on board the ‘Ocean Shield’ after a successful buoyancy test in the Indian Ocean. The vehicle is to be used to locate the flight recorder of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. — EPA
PERTH: Two ships – the Australian navy vessel Ocean Shield and the British navy’s HMS Echo – have begun the underwater search for MH370, an operation described as “daunting.”
United States Navy Captain Mark Matthew said the towed pinger locator (TPL) deployed on Ocean Shield, had to be within 1.8km of the plane’s black box to be able to detect its signals
“We are listening for a signal which repeats every second. If we go directly over it, we’ll be able to hear it for an hour before it fades out of range,” he said.
Capt Matthew, salvage supervisor of Naval Sea System Command, said if the signal was heard, the ship would circle back to narrow down the location.
The TPL weighs about 31kg, is less than 1m in diameter and has a hydrophone the size of a rugby ball.
It is being towed behind the ship at speeds of between two and three knots.
“We have confidence in our equipment but the area is vast and it’s going to take time,” he said.
He admitted that it was a race against time to detect the beacon before the battery on the black box expired.
“The battery can last 30 days but typically they last a bit longer than that but I would not be confident to say they can last beyond 45 days,” he said.
Capt Matthew said the sub-sea search could cover about 804.6 sq km over the next 10 days.
If the battery runs out, the team would face an even longer and difficult search using a side scan sonar system.
“The ranges on that may be 300m to 600m as opposed to 1.8km, so it will be a much shorter detection range.”
The HMS Echo is an oceanographic survey vessel with state-of-the-art acoustic sensors on board.
The Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) said the aerial search for MH370 would still continue.
JACC head retired Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston, said finding debris from the missing plane would significantly narrow the search area.
“Instead of searching over an area the size of Ireland, we might be able to get into an area the size of metropolitan Perth, for example,” he said.
Ten military and four civilian aircraft are taking part in the search, along with nine ships in an area about 1,700km north-west of Perth.
Houston said the search area covered about 217,000sq-km.