The Bluefin-21 has been running 20-hour missions as it searches for signs of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean. The vehicle can reach depths of 15,000 feet and cover 30 miles per day.
While the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has continued since its March 8 disappearance, marine technology expert David Kelly MS’86 knows finding answers sometimes just requires time.
“These types of searches require persistence and tenacity,” said Kelly, president and chief executive officer of Bluefin Robotics in Quincy, Mass., a marine robotics and deep-sea technology company involved with the search for the jetliner. “Every piece of information we garner helps to move efforts forward.”
The Bluefin-21, an autonomous underwater vehicle developed by Bluefin Robotics, is helping with those efforts as the search in the southern Indian Ocean far off Australia’s western coast requires some of the world’s most advanced underwater technology.
“It takes state-of-the-art technology to reach a part of the world that is very difficult to get around,” said Kelly, who earned a master’s degree in computer science from UT Dallas. “Since mobility is key, our device means we can go anywhere in world.”
The Bluefin-21 can reach depths of up to 15,000 feet and cover 30 miles per day, making it ideal for searches of inhospitable and otherwise inaccessible areas.
“The Bluefin-21 is diving 4,500 meters underwater — almost three miles below the ocean’s surface. At that depth, the temperature is just about freezing and it’s pitch black. The pressure of the water is equivalent to the weight of a Cadillac Escalade pressing down on your thumbnail,” Kelly said. “It’s a tough, difficult environment to work in — not your day on the lake.”
The vehicle, owned by a U.S. Navy defense contractor, uses sonar technology to scan the ocean floor, with sounds bouncing off objects to produce images that are then analyzed above water.
Specialists are looking at the data for prominent objects, such as right angles — an indicator of man-made features — and collections of items. If such abnormalities are discovered, the vehicle would return to the area to capture more detailed information with its high-resolution cameras.
The vehicle has been running 20-hour missions, which includes about 16 hours scouring the ocean’s floor. After returning to the surface, the vehicle gets new batteries and its data is downloaded before it is relaunched.
Based on signals consistent with airplane flight recorders and likely trajectories, the Boeing 777, with 239 people on board, is believed to have crashed in the ocean after it went off course on its journey from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
The Bluefin-21 will finish its search of the area this week before recovery efforts move to the next stage.
Because of the remote location of the search and limited communication capabilities, a Bluefin marine operations engineer has been on site with the equipment to help analyze data, and configure and optimize the technology.
“While the other involved entities are fully capable, given the limited communications, providing onsite resources was the most efficient solution,” said Kelly, who has experience in defense electronic systems at Raytheon and Texas Instruments.
This isn’t the first time the Bluefin-21 has been used in search efforts. In 2012, the vehicle helped look for Amelia Earhart’s plane that vanished in 1937.
In addition to search and recovery operations, Bluefin technology is used for defense, scientific and commercial applications such as environmental monitoring, archaeology and exploration, and offshore energy surveys. With each equipment launch, Bluefin attempts to learn and improve technology for future use.
“Understanding any anomalies, how our devices are being used and what could be beneficial in future generations of our technology, is what happens after efforts such as today’s,” Kelly said.