In the hunt for signs of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 — which disappeared on March 8 after deviating for unknown reasons from its scheduled flight path — all eyes this week turned to a company that got its start at MIT.
Bluefin Robotics, founded in 1997 by a core group of engineers from the MIT Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Lab, is the maker of the Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The U.S. Navy, which has used a version of the unmanned submersible to locate landmines, has kept it standing by for weeks while larger vessels worked to narrow down the plane’s resting place off the coast of Australia. On April 14, the Bluefin’s operators finally got the go-ahead to send it into the depths.
The long, skinny AUV (more than 16 feet long and only 21 inches in diameter) can run for up to 25 hours at a time. Moving at 3 knots, however, it’s no speedier than the average pedestrian, which is why narrowing the field of search has been so crucial to its use — and why its explorations could take six to eight weeks. More challenging still is the enormity of the unknown environment into which the robot will descend. Last week, Commodore Peter Leavy of the Royal Australian Navy remarked to reporters, “It has been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than our own seabed.”
Why deploy the Bluefin-21 now? The black box of an aircraft has enough power to emit pings for approximately 30 days. At day 38, with the last of four pings detected nearly a week prior, searchers assumed those signals have ceased for good. The only other new clue to help the Bluefin team zero in on the wreckage is an oil slick discovered April 13.
Once the Bluefin-21 gets into the water, it will take roughly two hours to descend about 2.5 miles, at which point its sensors will begin imaging the ocean floor with sonar. If in the coming weeks it can find any signs of a crash — or, better yet, the voice recorder that captured the last sounds from the cockpit — the world may at last learn what befell the 239 people whose flight never got to its destination.