UAS & Robotics

Navy’s mine-hunting drone takes over search for Malaysian airliner

Navy Bluefin-21 mine hunter

Australian authorities leading the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 have turned to a U.S. Navy underwater autonomous vehicle, the Bluefin 21, to look for signs of the airliner in the Indian Ocean.

The torpedo-shaped Bluefin, primarily used for mine-hunting, uses side-scan sonar to create images of the ocean floor based on reflected sounds, a process that could also identify the wreckage. But the process of mapping the ocean floor in the search area is a painstaking process that could take up to two months, CNN reported.

UPDATE: The Bluefin's first foray March 14 was cut short after reaching waters beyond its maximum depth of 4,500 meters. The probe was later redeployed to continue the search.

The search for the airliner, which disappeared March 8 shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, has focused on an 18,400-square-mile area of the Indian Ocean about 1,240 miles southwest of Perth after ships detected what could have been pings from the plane’s flight recorders, or “black boxes.” The batteries for those recorders, which generally last about 30 days, are likely now dead, and with no sounds detected for six days, searchers decided to deploy Bluefin.

The Navy has had versions of the underwater autonomous vehicle, made by Bluefin Robotics, for more than a decade. The most recent version, the Bluefin-21, is a 20-foot long, 1,350-pound vehicle that navigates via a fiber-optic gyro-based inertial navigation system integrated with GPS, and a Doppler velocity log (DVL) providing precise underwater navigation, according to the Navy. Late last year, a Bluefin-21—which the Navy calls Reliant, a prototype of its Knifefish mine-hunter—successfully navigated a 315-mile, 109-hour journey through busy waters along the East Coast, from Boston Harbor to New York.  

The search in the Indian Ocean will be broken up into a series of daily missions, each a 24-hour process that includes descent, mapping a section of the search area, surfacing and four hours for operators to download and analyze data, CNN reported. The first mission will cover an area of 3.1 miles by 4.9 miles.

The Knifefish program is projected to be a component of the Littoral Combat Ship’s mine countermeasures mission package, operating as an off-board sensor system to alter ships of possible minefields.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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