Missing Plane: Bluefin Drone Reaches Deepest Level Yet in Search

Image: Missing Plane: Bluefin Drone Reaches Deepest Level Yet in Search

Friday, 18 Apr 2014 11:38 AM

By Ken Mandel

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The underwater drone dispatched to scour the Indian Ocean floor for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has reached its deepest and riskiest level yet, experts say.

The U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21, equipped with a "side scan" sonar, is searching an area roughly 1,200 miles west of Perth, Australia, where officials feel the plane crashed shortly after it vanished from radar screens March 8. All 239 passengers and crew are believed to have perished.

A series of "pings" that authorities believed might have been coming from the plane's black boxes led searchers to the area in the Indian Ocean, but no new signals have been received in a week, according to Reuters. That's what triggered the launch of the Bluefin-21.

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"This is the first time the Bluefin-21 has descended to this depth," U.S. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel S. Marciniak said in a statement this week. "Diving to such depths does carry with it some residual risk to the equipment and this is being carefully monitored by the U.S. Navy and [Bluefin-21 owner] Phoenix International."

On Monday, the probe set out for a 20-hour deployment, but returned eight hours later when it entered water beyond its 14,764-foot maximum depth, according to CNN. The second mission also ended abruptly because of technical difficulties, The Associated Press reported.

The Bluefin-21 has an automatic safety mechanism, which sends the vessel to the surface when it exceeds a depth of 14,763 feet. None of its searches so far have turned up any wreckage.

Friday's plunge was the drone's fifth venture. Marciniak also told Reuters that the search area has been narrowed based on further data analysis, and the search window has also been shortened, given that the drone is now focusing on a "reduced and more focused underwater search area."

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