Robotic submarine deployed in search for plane

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Robotic submarine deployed in search for plane
In this map provided on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet will likely soon deploy more powerful sonar equipment that can delve deeper as the current search of the most likely crash site in the Indian Ocean has failed to yield any clues, Australia's defense minister said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Ben Pelletier, marine operations engineer for Bluefin Robotics, attempts to retrieve a submarine in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
Cheryl Mierzwa, left, systems engineer for Bluefin Robotics, helps guide a submarine onto the deck of a boat in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
A submarine built by Bluefin Robotics is lowered into the water by systems engineer Cheryl Mierzwa in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
A submarine built by Bluefin Robotics is lowered down onto a boat at their headquarters in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
In this Tuesday, April 8, 2014 photo, Leading Aircraftman Andrew Smith works on a propeller of a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after it arrived back from the ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crews typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
In this photo taken March 30, 2014, ground crew repair a window on a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after the aircraft returns from the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crews typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
In this photo taken March 25, 2014, ground crew work on a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after the aircraft returns from the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crew typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
FILE - In this April 3, 2014 photo, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, right, greets a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion captain Lt. Russell Adams and his crew involved in the search for wreckage and debris of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, at RAAF Base Pearce near Perth, Australia. The ground crews at this air force base near Perth typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of missing Flight 370 continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool, File)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10 : A handout image released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in Canberra, Australia, 10 April 2014, shows the search area in the Indian Ocean, West of Australia, where 14 planes and 13 ships are scouring a 57,923 square km area of ocean for the wreckage of flight MH370 on 10 April 2014. Flight MH370 went missing after losing radio contact with Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carried 239 passengers including 12 flight crew from 14 different countries. (Photo by AMSA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Angus Houston (2nd-L), head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 speaks at a media conference in Perth on April 9, 2014. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 08: Defence Minister David Johnston (R) responds to a reporters question together with Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret'd) during a press conference over the continuing search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce on April 8, 2014 in Perth, Australia. ACM Angus Houston advised the towed pinger by ADV Ocean Shield is still trying to re-locate the signals previously detected, which were believed to be consistent with aircraft black boxes. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A Chinese relative (R) of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 holds a candle as she takes part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, points to a graphic of the search area during a media conference in Perth on April 7, 2014. An Australian navy ship has detected new underwater signals consistent with aircraft black boxes, Houston said on April 7, describing it as the 'most promising lead' so far in the month-old hunt for missing Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon waits at the end of the runway before it takes off from Perth Airport en route to rejoin the ongoing search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Monday, April 14, 2014. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued to focus Monday on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite mounting evidence that the batteries in the plane's all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
A screen inside of a Bluefin Robotics research vessel shows side-scan sonar data retrieved from one of their submarines in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
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PERTH, Australia (AP) - Search crews sent a robotic submarine deep into the Indian Ocean on Monday to begin scouring the seabed for the missing Malaysian airliner after failing for six days to detect any signals believed to be from its black boxes.

Meanwhile, officials were investigating an oil slick about 5,500 meters (3.4 miles) from the area where the last underwater sounds were detected, said Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search off Australia's west coast.

Crews have collected an oil sample and are sending it back to Australia for analysis, a process that will take several days. Houston said it does not appear to be from any of the ships in the area, but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about its source.

The unmanned underwater vehicle, the Bluefin 21, was launched from the Australian navy ship Ocean Shield, the U.S. Navy said. The autonomous sub can create a three-dimensional sonar map of any debris on the ocean floor.

The move comes after crews picked up a series of underwater sounds over the past two weeks that were consistent with signals from an aircraft's black boxes, which record flight data and cockpit conversations. The devices emit "pings" so they can be more easily found, but their batteries only last about a month and are now believed dead.

"Today is day 38 of the search," Houston told a news conference. "We haven't had a single detection in six days, so I guess it's time to go under water."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised hopes last week when he said authorities were "very confident" the four strong underwater signals that were detected were from the black boxes on Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board, mostly Chinese.

But Houston warned that while the signals are a promising lead, the public needs to be realistic about the challenges facing search crews in the extremely remote, deep patch of ocean - an area he called "new to man."

"I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the autonomous underwater vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not," Houston said. "However, this is the best lead we have, and it must be pursued vigorously. Again, I emphasize that this will be a slow and painstaking process."

Houston, a retired Australian chief air marshal, called the search "one of the largest search and rescue, search and recovery operations that I've seen in my lifetime."

The Ocean Shield had been dragging a U.S. Navy device called a towed pinger locator through the water to listen for any sounds from the black boxes' beacons.

The Bluefin sub takes six times longer to cover the same area as the ping locator, and the two devices can't be used at the same time. Crews had been hoping to detect additional signals before sending down the sub, so they could triangulate the source and zero in on where the black boxes may be.

The submarine will take 24 hours to complete each mission: two hours to dive to the bottom, 16 hours to search the seafloor, two hours to return to the surface, and four hours to download the data, Houston said. In its first deployment, it will search a 40-square kilometer (15-square mile) section of seafloor.

The black boxes could contain the key to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Flight 370. Investigators believe the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean based on a flight path calculated from its contacts with a satellite and an analysis of its speed and fuel capacity. But they still don't know why.

A visual search for debris on the ocean surface continued Monday over 47,600 square kilometers (18,400 square miles) of water about 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of the west coast city of Perth. A total of 12 planes and 15 ships joined the search.

But Houston said the visual search operation will end in the next two to three days. Officials haven't found a single piece of debris confirmed to be from the plane, and he said the chances that any would be found have "greatly diminished."

"We've got no visual objects," he said. "The only thing we have left at this stage is the four transmissions and an oil slick in the same vicinity, so we will investigate those to their conclusion."

Complicating matters further is the depth of the ocean in the search area. The seafloor is about 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) below the surface, which is the deepest the Bluefin can dive. Officials are looking for other vehicles that could help to retrieve any wreckage that might be located.

Searchers are also contending with a thick layer of silt on the bottom that is tens of meters (yards) deep in places, which could hide debris that has sunk.

U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Matthews said the silt poses a challenge, but it does not make the mission impossible.

"Our experience shows that there will be some debris on top of the silt and you should be able to see indications of a debris field," Matthews said. "But every search is different."

A British vessel, the HMS Echo, has equipment that can help map the seafloor in the area, which is more flat and rolling than mountainous, Houston said.

Australia Will Soon Deploy Undersea Robot in Hunt for MH370
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