Search for Malaysian aircraft turns to underwater robot

Now that the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight has picked up what could be pings from the aircraft’s flight data recorder, the international search force has turned to autonomous underwater vehicles to help scour the ocean floor for the digital recorders and signs of wreckage.

Among the undersea robots being deployed is the Bluefin-21, a 16-foot long remotely piloted vehicle that looks like a torpedo. Rescuers will be using the robot’s side scan sonar and digital imaging capabilities to survey the ocean floor for signs of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

The Bluefin-21 can dive to a depth of more than 14,000 feet and can stay under for up to 25 hours. The U.S. Navy, which sent the system to Australia to take part in the search, has tested a variant of the Bluefin-21 as part of its Littoral Combat Ship Mine Countermeasures program. The sonar and imaging systems onboard the Bluefin-21 are able to create detailed maps of the ocean floor that will allow rescuers to distinguish between natural and man-made objects. It also comes equipped with a sub-bottom profiler system for looking beneath the surface of the ocean floor.

Rescuers will be able to use the Bluefin-21’s command and control software to plan the survey route and monitor the AUV’s progress. The Windows-based tool suite includes everything necessary to run and manage the system, including vehicle check-out and testing, mission planning, vehicle communications, mission monitoring and execution, data management, and post-mission analysis, according to a data sheet published by Quincy, Mass.-based Bluefin Robotics, the manufacturer of the Bluefin-21.


Once the system is deployed, it syncs up with the planning software via an RF connection, and then obtains location data through a global positioning system satellite.

Bluefin Robotics is a wholly owned subsidiary of Battelle.

Imaging Systems Aboard Bluefin-21

  • Side scan sonar
  • Synthetic aperture sonar
  • Multibeam echosounders
  • Imaging sonar
  • Sub-bottom
  • Video camera
  • Still camera

How the Bluefin-21 works


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