The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (pictured) will help search for missing flight MH370. Photo: Bluefin Robotics
The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (pictured) will help search for missing flight MH370. Photo: Bluefin Robotics

In the hunt for signs of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370—which disappeared on March 8 after deviating for unknown reasons from its scheduled flight path—all eyes today turn to a company that got its start at MIT.

Bluefin Robotics, founded in 1997 by a core group of engineers from the MIT Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Lab, is the maker of the Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The US Navy, which has used a version of the unmanned submersible to locate landmines, has kept it standing by for weeks while larger vessels worked to narrow down the plane’s resting place off the coast of Australia. On April 14, the Bluefin’s operators finally got the go-ahead to send it into the depths.

The long, skinny AUV (more than 16 feet long and only 21 inches in diameter) can run for up to 25 hours at a time. Moving at 3 knots, however, it’s no speedier than the average pedestrian, which is why narrowing the field of search has been so crucial to its use—and why its explorations could take 6 to 8 weeks. More challenging still is the enormity of the unknown environment into which the robot will descend. Last week, Commodore Peter Leavy of the Royal Australian Navy remarked to reporters, “It has been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than our own seabed.”

Why deploy the Bluefin-21 now? The black box of an aircraft has enough power to emit pings for approximately 30 days. At day 38, with the last of 4 pings detected nearly a week ago, searchers are assuming those signals have ceased for good. The only other new clue to help the Bluefin’s team zero in on the wreckage is an oil slick discovered yesterday.

Once the Bluefin-21 gets into the water, it will take roughly 2 hours to descend about 2.5 miles, at which point its sensors will begin imaging the ocean floor with sonar. If in the coming weeks it can find any signs of a crash—or, better yet, the voice recorder that captured the last sounds from the cockpit—the world may at last learn what befell the 239 people whose flight never got to its destination.

Learn more about how the Bluefin-21 will conduct its search from the BBC and CNN.

And discover how, in the spirit of Harold “Doc” Edgerton, Boston-area teenagers will design and build an AUV at MIT this summer.

Related Topics

One comment

  1. Abdessalam

    We hope to God the Almighty to reconcile this submarine in the discovery of the crash site. Yes, this will not bring them back but the revival prove to humanity and the people of the victims that the world cares and the world is still okay.

Share your thoughts

Thank you for your comments and for your role in creating a safe and dynamic online environment. MIT Spectrum reserves the right to remove any content that is deemed, in our sole view, commercial, harmful, or otherwise inappropriate.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *