As the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 comes to a frustrating and unsuccessful close, the likelihood of locating the plane's final resting place are astronomically small. However, where an international fleet of search vessels and scanning satellites have failed, this autonomous submarine from Bluefin Robotics could very well succeed.
The Bluefin-21 is a torpedo-shaped autonomous undersea survey vehicle measuring five metres in length, 60 centimetres in diameter, and weighing just over 770 kilos. Designed specifically for deep water exploration, the Bluefin-21 can dive 4,400 metres below the waves in search of its quarry—from submerged archaeological sites to maritime wreckage to unexploded military ordnance—and operate for up to 20 hours at a time.
It carries a state of the art modular sensor suite, including a side scanning radar and a multibeam echosounder, as well as an HD camera for capturing images of items it discovers through its acoustic payload. The Bluefin-21's inertial navigation system operates in tandem with its on-board GPS to provide precise coordinates of everything it finds.
Normally used by the US Navy for hunting underwater mines, the Pentagon is currently airlifting one such AUV to Australia where it will assist in a supplemental survey of the seafloor where Flight 370 is thought to have gone down. Its precise acoustic sensors and detailed optics should easily be able to spot any debris—or, hopefully, black boxes—that may be down there, although the Navy is stressing that this is merely a precautionary measure should new leads turn up.
"We don't have a debris field that we can go look for specifically," said Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby during a press conference on Monday. "We don't have anything to indicate where the aircraft is or even that it is down at the bottom of the ocean."