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Friday 29 August 2014

Malaysia Airlines MH370: unmanned submarine sent on search

As black box battery winds down, authorities say they are to send in subs to identify 'ping' in Indian Ocean

Jonathan Pearlman

Published 11/04/2014 | 23:03

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Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) co-pilot squadron leader Brett McKenzie, left, and Flight Engineer Trent Wyatt sit in the cockpit aboard a P-3 Orion on route to search over the southern Indian Ocean looking for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 Friday, April 11, 2014. Authorities are confident that signals detected deep in the Indian Ocean are from the missing Malaysian jet's black boxes, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday, raising hopes they are close to solving one of aviation's most perplexing mysteries.  (AP Photo/Richard Polden, Pool)
Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) co-pilot squadron leader Brett McKenzie, left, and Flight Engineer Trent Wyatt sit in the cockpit aboard a P-3 Orion on route to search over the southern Indian Ocean looking for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 Friday, April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Polden, Pool)
Sgt. Trent Wyatt,  a crew member of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion,  look out in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean, Friday, April 11, 2014. Their search area was located 1,800 kilometers (1,125 miles) northwest of Perth and they were tasked with flying at 800 feet to visually search for aircraft debris. Authorities are confident that signals detected deep in the Indian Ocean are from the missing Malaysian jet's black boxes, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday, raising hopes they are close to solving one of aviation's most perplexing mysteries.  (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool)
Sgt. Trent Wyatt, a crew member of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion, look out in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean, Friday, April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool)
A woman, one of the relatives of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 shows her mobile phone displaying a photo of her father, who was aboard the missing plane near the wall displaying messages of wishes for the passengers at a hotel in Beijing, China Friday, April 11, 2014. Authorities are confident that signals detected deep in the Indian Ocean are from the missing Malaysian jet's black boxes, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday, raising hopes they are near solving one of aviation's most perplexing mysteries. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
A woman, one of the relatives of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 shows her mobile phone displaying a photo of her father, who was aboard the missing plane near the wall displaying messages of wishes for the passengers at a hotel in Beijing, China Friday, April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Authorities plan to deploy an unmanned submarine within days to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane amid concerns the black box locator beacon may be running out of battery life.

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No signals have been detected from the black box beacon since Tuesday, suggesting it may be close to the end of its battery life or may already have stopped pinging.

Angus Houston, the search coordinator, said there had been no “major breakthrough” and a signal heard on Thursday was not from the plane’s black box.

However, Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, said that he was “very confident” previous signals were from the black box and that the search had been narrowed to within “some kilometres”.

“We have very much narrowed down the search area,” he said.

“We are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometres. But confidence in the approximate position of the black box is not the same as recovering wreckage from almost four-and-a-half kilometres [14,800 feet] beneath the sea.”

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Flight Lieutenant Stephen Graham studies notes aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P-3 Orion on route to search over the southern Indian Ocean looking for debris from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 Friday, April 11, 2014.   (AP Photo/Richard Polden, Pool)

Four sets of signals believed to be from the black box’s beacon have reduced the search area to about 200 square miles in waters about 650 miles off the coast of north-west Australia. The batteries in the beacon are past their expected 30 days of life but could last a further two weeks; the Boeing 777, with 239 passengers aboard, disappeared on March 8.

Authorities plan to use a Bluefin-21 submarine to survey the ocean floor and take photographs of possible wreckage but it can only travel at about 5 miles per hour and cannot send data while submersed.

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Sgt. Trent Wyatt,  a crew member of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion,  look out in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean, Friday, April 11, 2014.  (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool)

The submarine is aboard Australia’s Ocean Shield, the same ship towing the pinger locator, but was intended to search for wreckage only after the locator had honed in on the black box. Switching to the submarine would not only slow the operation but risks failure because its maximum depth is 14,800 feet – the same as that of the area’s ocean floor.

Mr Houston said the search was likely to continue to use a towed pinger locator to try to detect signals for “some days” before giving up and deploying the submarine.

“It is vital to glean as much information as possible while the batteries on the underwater locator beacons may still be active,” he said.

“[The Australian navy vessel] Ocean Shield is continuing more focused sweeps with the towed pinger locator to try and locate further signals.”

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