Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: High-tech search tools

The deep sea robot search for 370

    Just Watched

    The deep sea robot search for 370

The deep sea robot search for 370 01:57

Story highlights

  • A towed pinger locator seeks a transmission from the flight data recorder
  • An autonomous underwater vehicle can be lowered 20,000 feet
  • A remotely operated vehicle has arms that can snag pieces from wreckage

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 said good night, then drifted off over the darkened seas, somehow bypassing that vast spiderweb of modern technology that catches every move of worldwide aviation. Yet now, high technology seems the only way of tracking down where on Earth the plane ended up.

Let's presume the plane did go down in the Indian Ocean, thousands of feet deep with churning currents and treacherous weather. Here are some devices that might help searchers find signs of the plane.

TPL: Towed pinger locator

A sensor for the towed pinger locator sits on the wharf at a naval base in Perth, Australia, on Sunday, March 30.

One of the most helpful devices planes carry is what's known as the pinger, a "sound" transmitted from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder that can be heard from 2 nautical miles away.

"Think of your cell phone ringer. If you lose your cell phone you can call it and you hear your phone ringing, so you narrow down your search," said Phoenix International manager Paul Nelson. Phoenix International, an American company, owns the TPL-25 system, which dives 20,000 feet below the surface of the ocean for hours and miles at a time.

Malaysia: Lessons in crisis management

    Just Watched

    Malaysia: Lessons in crisis management

Malaysia: Lessons in crisis management 03:16
Plane transcript shows normal discussion

    Just Watched

    Plane transcript shows normal discussion

Plane transcript shows normal discussion 02:03
MH370 flight pinger locator explained

    Just Watched

    MH370 flight pinger locator explained

MH370 flight pinger locator explained 02:19

The U.S. Navy has sent a towed pinger locator, or TPL, to drag behind a ship. The TPL moves at 1 to 5 knots and can recognize the flight recorder's ping up to 20,000 feet below the surface. But it has limitations. The batteries powering the ping will only last 30 to 45 days, and can be drowned out by weather or noise or silt.

In 2009, the Phoenix TPL-25, in conjunction with technology from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, searched for a ping from Air France Flight 447, which crashed hundreds of miles off the coast of Brazil in 2009. That search didn't find the plane, but two years later, searchers found the flight data recorder and the bulk of the wreckage using an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV.

Behind the scenes: Filming remotely operated underwater vehicles at sea

AUV: Autonomous underwater vehicles

AUVs are normally used in the oil and gas industry to conduct deepwater oilfield surveys. But when the pinger of the data recorder is dead, the AUV can narrow the search area of a crash site by mapping the ocean floor.

"The smaller ones are only going to go down to about 5,000 feet. The next class is a much more expensive, much larger device. It's 15 by 25 feet because it adds a lot of battery capability and a lot of hydraulic capability," said David Soucie, an analyst who said modern technology has greatly improved the search for answers in a flight crash investigation.

One of the most sophisticated AUVs owned by Phoenix International was activated and flown to Perth, Australia, to help with the search for Flight 370. The device is yellow, 17.2 feet long and has an in-air weight of 1,600 pounds. It can be lowered 20,000 feet below the water surface and travels 2 to 4.5 knots for about 20 hours at a time, using side-scan sonar to create a map of the seafloor. The rapidly moving probe is also equipped with a still camera.

"They have their own control system so they talk to it with an acoustic modem. It's hard to get sound through the water," said Jami Cheramie of C&C Technology, whose AUV has been called in to search for plane debris in the past. "We will see waterfalls. A picture will scroll and you will see the seafloor be painted in front of you."

AUVs are unmanned, so they can be programmed like robots to "mow the lawn," Cheramie said. They use a grid style pattern to create an image of the deep sea. Sensors around the body of the device help it avoid obstacles that would endanger a diver.

MH370: Malaysian investigation failures

    Just Watched

    MH370: Malaysian investigation failures

MH370: Malaysian investigation failures 02:28
Official: We're in the right place

    Just Watched

    Official: We're in the right place

Official: We're in the right place 01:07

AUVs played an instrumental role in finding the downed Air France flight, the plane wreckage of Italian fashion designer Vittorio Missoni off the coast of Venezuela, and the HMS Ark Royal, a ship sunk by a German U-81 submarine in World War II. The AUV provided black and white images of the wreckage site.

Once wreckage is found and confirmed, the next step is recovering key parts, like the data recorders.

A remotely operated vehicle is lowered into the waters of the North Sea on March 23.

ROV: Remotely operating vehicle

The multimillion-dollar remotely operated vehicle provides the "gotcha" moment that all searches are working toward. But investigators need more than just eyes on the wreckage site, they need to get their hands on the data recorders. An ROV helped retrieve pieces of the most famous shipwreck in history, the British passenger liner Titanic.

ROVs are tethered to a ship, lowered by remote control thousands of feet to the ocean floor by a cable and maneuvered by pilots sitting in a control room. The daily rate for an ROV is in the $150,000 range.

Helix Canyon Offshore gave CNN an exclusive look at its Triton XLS ROV aboard the Olympic Triton off the coast of Scotland. The Triton XLS is equipped with cameras that provide a live feed to the control room. It has arms and jaws that can be controlled by a joystick.

"Not a problem at all for an ROV to pick it up, put it in a basket and recover it back to the vessel," said ROV superintendent Martin Stitt.

Ocean Shield: Mission of hope and uncertainty

After 25 days, plenty of ocean trash, questions, but no sign of Flight 370

How do ocean recoveries work?

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      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.
    • 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?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      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.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      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.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • 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.