The Malaysian government has agreed to pay the American private seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity up to $70 million if it finds the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370 within ninety days of starting its mission in the southern Indian Ocean.
The contract that was signed today (Wednesday) in Putrajaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur, is a “no cure, no fee” deal. Ocean Infinity confirmed that it will take on the economic risk of the renewed search, only receiving payment if the aircraft wreckage is located.
MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board. It was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The new search is due to begin by January 17. The focus now is the 25,000-square-kilometre priority zone identified by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) as being the most likely location of the missing plane.
Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said that if MH370 is found in the first 5,000 square kilometres searched Ocean Infinity will be paid $20 million. The fee will be $30 million if the plane is found within 10,000 square kilometres and $50 million if it is found within an area of 25,000 square kilometres. If the plane is found outside of the 25,000-square-kilometre priority zone, Ocean Infinity will receive $70 million.
All searches must be completed within 90 days.
Ocean Infinity says that the Norwegian vessel it has leased for the search operation – the 115.4-metre Seabed Constructor – is now close to the search area, “which will enable work to commence imminently”.
Ocean Infinity will be using state-of-the-art technology. The company is able to deploy up to eight Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), capable of operating in depths up to 6,000 metres.
Each HUGIN AUV is 6.2 metres long, weighs 1,850 kilograms, and contains a titanium sphere that protects its electronics from deep-ocean pressure.
There will be 65 crew on board Seabed Constructor, including two Malaysian navy personnel.
Ocean Infinity’s CEO, Oliver Plunkett, said in a statement: “We are pleased that our offer to continue the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has been accepted by the government of Malaysia, who I would like to thank for giving us the opportunity.”
Plunkett said that, whilst there could be no guarantees that the aircraft would be located, Ocean Infinity believed that its system of multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously was well suited to the task at hand.
“I wish our team the best of luck in their endeavours and sincerely hope that we will be able to play a part in providing some answers to the many people affected by this tragedy.”
Ocean Infinity’s AUVs are “free flying”, which means they won’t be tethered to the offshore vessel during operations. Their ability to conduct untethered, independent missions enables them to dive very deep and collect the highest quality data. With eight AUVs in operation, Ocean Infinity should be able to scan 1,200 square kilometres per day.
The vehicles will be equipped with a side scan sonar, a multi-beam echosounder, a sub-bottom profiler, a HD camera, a conductivity, temperature, and depth sensor, a self-compensating magnetometer, a synthetic aperture sonar, and a turbidity sensor¹.
The MH370 family support group Voice 370 said in a statement that it welcomed the long-awaited signing of the contract between the Malaysian government and Ocean Infinity.
“We thank the government of Malaysia for its efforts in evaluating offers and concluding this agreement. We appreciate the bold offer for the search on a ‘no cure, no fee’ basis from Ocean Infinity.”
The next-of-kin said their best wishes were with all parties involved in the new search.
“It is our fervent hope that the search yields results. While it may not bring our loved ones back into our midst, we wish for the answers that will let matters rest, and to make civil aviation safer.”
Voice 370 urged Malaysia to provide periodic updates and to consult with the families on an ongoing basis, “particularly with the current search, and future recovery efforts, and handling of any debris and/or human remains, if located”.
The group said that, in the event that the search by Ocean Infinity is unfruitful, it asks Malaysia to be open to similar “no cure, no fee” search proposals from other parties “or initiate a prepaid search if new evidence is found”.
Australia, China and Malaysia ended their unsuccessful $157-million search of 120,000 square kilometres of the southern Indian Ocean in January last year. Not a single trace of MH370 was found.
The only debris that is said to be from MH370 has been retrieved off the coast of Africa.
Relatives of those on board MH370 had been pushing hard for the search for MH370 to be resumed and repeatedly urged the Malaysian government to accept Ocean Infinity’s “no cure, no fee” offer, which the company made more than eight months ago.
There is particular time pressure in the southern Indian Ocean as the weather there deteriorates in April.
The original southern Indian Ocean search area was defined according to calculations by the British company Inmarsat that were based on satellite pings – or handshakes – from MH370. Inmarsat identified a 7th arc, along which it said MH370 was most likely to be found.
There are dissenting experts and investigators who have cast doubt on Inmarsat’s conclusions, and some of them believe the plane is not in the southern Indian Ocean at all.
For the coming weeks, however, all eyes – and the hopes of next-of-kin – will be pinned on Ocean Infinity and its operations in the new search area, which was defined after analysis of satellite imagery and a process of drift modelling both of debris found on the African mainland and on islands off the African coast and of the images captured by satellite.
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In its final report on its search for MH370, which was released on October 3 last year, the ATSB states that the search zone has now been “considerably narrowed” to an area of less than 25,000 square kilometres, where, the ATSB says, there is the “highest likelihood” of MH370 being located.
The satellite images studied by the government agency Geoscience Australia were captured by a French military satellite on March 23, 2014, in an area close to the 7th arc. A range of objects are visible in the images that have been identified as probably man-made.
Given the objects’ proximity to the former underwater search area, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducted a drift study to determine their geographic origin so as to provide an indication of where they were likely to have been on March 8, 2014.
The ATSB says the study found that the projected location on March 8 of the objects identified in most of the satellite images was consistent with the area identified by experts during the MH370 “First Principles Review” meeting¹ in Canberra, Australia, in November 2016.
The chief commissioner of the ATSB, Greg Hood, urged caution, however, and said the objects captured on satellite had not been definitely identified as MH370 debris.
- Turbidity sensors measure the amount of light that is scattered by suspended solids in water. As the amount of total suspended solids in water increases, the water’s turbidity level (and cloudiness or haziness) increases.