Torpedo-shaped robot joins search for missing Malaysian flight

The Bluefin-21, an autonomous swimming robot, will be dropped 2.5 miles below ocean surface for the hunt

A ship carrying an autonomous robot that will search for the missing Malaysian airliner has detected electronic signals that could be coming from the missing plane.

If the ship, Australia's Ocean Shield, can narrow the search area, the crew will drop an autonomous underwater vehicle, the Bluefin-21, in the southern Indian Ocean to try and find the airplane.

"I am now optimistic that we will find the aircraft, or what is left of the aircraft in the not-too-distant future," said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who heads Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center, according to a Bloombergreport. "But we haven't found it yet because this is a very challenging business."

The Ocean Shield, which also is pulling a U.S. Navy towed pinger locator, detected a signal for five minutes and 32 seconds on Tuesday afternoon and again last night, when it detected a ping for about 7 minutes.

The search for Flight 370, which has been missing since March 8, is at a critical juncture since the signals from the locator beacons have begun weakening.

"The signals are getting weaker, which means we're either moving away from the search area or the pinger batteries are dying," Houston told CNN.

The batteries that power the locator beacons are only certified to emit high-pitched signals for 30 days after initially being submerged in water.

David Kelly, president and CEO of Quincy, Mass.-based Bluefin Robotics Corp., said the firm's submersible robot is being used by U.S.-based Phoenix International Holdings, a marine services contractor. Working with the U.S. Navy on the search for the missing flight, Phoenix International put the machine on the Ocean Shield to aid in the hunt.

Kelly, in an email to Computerworld, said the Bluefin 21 will be used once the search area is further narrowed.

"The search is occurring in a very challenging part of the world to operate," said Kelly. "The initial search area is the size of Texas. The vehicle is operating two and a half miles below the ocean surface where the pressure is equivalent to balancing a Cadillac Escalade on your thumbnail, and it is pitch black."

If ships can close in on the pings, which are thought to be coming from the plane's black box, then the robot can be sent down to search the ocean floor for wreckage.

"The underwater robot can operate in this environment and provide high-quality sensor imagery of the ocean floor, which can be analyzed for objects of interest," said Kelly.

The Bluefin-21 is a torpedo-shaped machine that is 21 inches wide and 16.2 feet long. Weighing 1,650 pounds, the robot can work continuously for 25 hours and travels at 3 to 4.5 knots with a standard payload, according to Bluefin Robotics.

The robot carries multiple payloads, batteries, cameras and sensors. It also uses GPS and has a 4GB flash drive for onboard data storage.

The Bluefin-21 uses sonar and an echosounder to detect either wreckage or even signs of an anchor or airplane parts that might have dragged across the ocean floor.

According to Bluefin, the robot comes with a Windows-based tool suite that handles vehicle testing, mission planning, vehicle communications, mission monitoring and execution, data management, and post-mission analysis.

The autonomous robot, Bluefin-21, will be used to search for the missing Malaysian Flight 370 once the search area is narrowed.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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