If wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is ever discovered, an underwater drone could very well be the first thing to spot it.
The Bluefin-21 was contracted by the U.S. Navy to dive into the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia and scan the ocean floor for pieces of the plane that went missing on March 8 with 239 people onboard.
The drone was forced to resurface on April 16 due to a technical issue, according to a press release provided to Mashable by the Joint Agency Coordination Center, a search organization the Australian government created to help find the missing Malaysia airliner. Officials downloaded the drone’s memory once it was above water but, so far, Bluefin-21 has turned up nothing significant.
Built by Bluefin Robotics but owned and operated by Phoenix International, this autonomous underwater vehicle takes instructions from a ship’s radio before diving up to around 2.8 miles underwater. The remains of flight MH370 might be much farther down, but at that depth Bluefin-21 can blast the ocean floor with a sonar beam.
Data picked up from the sonar will be delivered once the drone resurfaces. Jim Gibson, General Manager of Phoenix International, told Mashable that if Bluefin-21 finds what might be a debris field, someone will switch out the vehicle’s sonar instruments with photo-taking equipment and send it back down to see if the clutter comes from the Malaysia Airlines plane. Bluefin-21 scans from side-to-side, and can spend about 16 hours at the bottom before coming up to re-juice.
The ability to swap equipment is key to why this particular drone wound up searching for flight MH370.
“It’s easily transported, unlike a lot of the other AUVs that are one piece,” Gibson said. “You can’t disassemble them, you need a special launch and recovery system to get them in and out of the water and everything else, and they’re quite heavy.”
The ’21’ refers to the drone’s 21-inch diameter, according to the Bluefin Robotics website. It’s a little over 16 feet long and weighs around 1,650 pounds when it’s not in the water. Once it hits its lowest depth, the vehicle travels about three nautical miles per hour and can scan about 15 square miles of ocean floor per day. It stores all that information into its four gigabytes of memory.
Despite the technical hiccup early on April 16, Bluefin-21 was redeployed later that day.