Skip to main content

Untangling a mystery: How do ocean recoveries work?

By Dana Ford, CNN
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The United States sends specialized equipment to Australia
  • Search crews can use manned and unmanned vehicles to hunt for plane
  • Autonomous vehicles can search for long periods and works with sonar
  • Remotely operated vehicles are tethered, have claws to pick up debris

(CNN) -- The fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may no longer be a mystery: The Malaysian Prime Minister said Monday the flight went down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

But for search crews, the announcement is just the beginning.

Their work now begins in earnest as teams step up their hunt for the plane and for clues about what exactly went wrong.

Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, spoke to CNN's "The Lead With Jake Tapper" about how such a search would work.

Charting missing plane's search zones
Search area is a 'giant washing machine'
Listening for MH370 'pings' underwater
New clues on Flight 370's final hours

"The first task is to look from the surface, to use listening devices as we heard, and then sonar and swath mapping techniques to try to locate anomalous debris fields, anomalous objects on the bottom and try to zero in based on that," he said.

"But, ultimately, you have to go to the bottom of the ocean and search ... in a nested way, starting in a big area and honing in as the evidence begins to indicate where the debris might be."

Crews could use manned and unmanned vehicles in that next stage of the search.

One example of a manned craft is the Jiaolong -- one of the deepest diving research submersibles in the world. The Chinese took it to a depth of more four miles in 2012, MacDonald said, indicating that country's capabilities for deep ocean operations.

China has a particularly large stake in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Its citizens made up about two-thirds of the passengers on the missing Boeing 777.

"I would not be at all surprised to see the Chinese take a very active role in trying to locate this aircraft, MacDonald said.

He also considered two types of unmanned vehicles -- autonomous underwater vehicles and remotely operated vehicles.

"Operators program a search pattern and then the vehicle is deployed," he said of the autonomous technology. "It dives to the bottom, usually operates about 100 feet or more off the bottom, and looks with sonar and other listening devices and tries to find the debris.

On June 26, the Joint Agency Coordination Center released a map showing the new search area for flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. On June 26, the Joint Agency Coordination Center released a map showing the new search area for flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean.
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Global aircraft tracking in the works
Math is key to flight location conclusion

"So, it goes back and forth -- mowing the lawn -- and it can operate autonomously for periods of up to 24 hours, and then it's recovered and the operators download its data and try to see if they've located something," MacDonald said.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Monday that U.S. Navy equipment is en route to Australia to be used in case a debris field is found.

The Navy's Towed Pinger Locator 25 is able to locate flight recorders on downed aircraft to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet. The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle has side-scanning sonar, which is useful in a debris field if there are underwater objects that need to be researched, Kirby said. It can operate at a depth of up to 14,700 feet.

Similar technology was used successfully in the hunt for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared in June 2009.

It took four searches over the course of nearly two years to locate the bulk of that wreckage and the majority of the 228 bodies in a mountain range deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the wreckage has been located, MacDonald said crews could turn to using remotely operated vehicles.

They have an umbilical cord, which runs from the vehicle to the surface.

"The pilots can see what the ROV is seeing in real-time. They have mechanical arms, with claws and lifters that can untangle debris," he said. "The ROV technology would be crucial for manipulating the wreckage and untangling this mystery."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
updated 8:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
updated 3:31 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
updated 5:05 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
updated 3:42 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Tue May 6, 2014
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.
ADVERTISEMENT