Malaysia Airlines MH370 search aided by robots

Crews searching for debris from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 can count on some help from a fleet of 3,600 robots drifting in the world's oceans.
Argo consists of around 3,600 floats or robots distributed around the world's oceans. (Argo)

Crews searching for debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 can count on some help from a fleet of 3,600 robots drifting in the world's oceans.

Marine recovery teams are hunting for the data recorder or "black box" from the Boeing 777 plane, which went missing with 239 people aboard after it left Kuala Lumpur on March 8, en route to Beijing.

The plane is now believed to have gone down in the Indian Ocean, about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth, Australia. Crews are hoping to find the black box before it runs out of power, likely within two weeks.

It's a 1.6 million square kilometre-area of high winds and choppy seas, where floating debris could travel long distances quickly.

But data from the international robot fleet Argo may give searchers some idea of where it could have gone, said Howard Freeland, director of the Argo program, who is based in North Saanich, B.C.

Each of the Argo robots or "floats" collect data on currents, temperature and salinity over an area of about 300 square kilometres, said Freeland, a retired Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist. The robots then feed their data via satellite into computer models such as the global ocean forecasting system BLUElink, which is run by a trio of Australian government agencies.

"So they can map currents in real time," said Freeland, in a phone interview after returning from an international meeting of the Argo team in Halifax.

The data can provide more than just an idea of where the debris may have drifted.

"You can run things backwards in time, so you can answer the inverse question: If for example, tomorrow they pick up a piece of debris somewhere, they can say, 'Where might this have come from?' Which I think could be very helpful."

The Argo project robots are cylinders about 15 centimetres in diameter – similar in thickness to a typical glass pasta jar. Each one would stand about as high as your chest or shoulders if set on the ground, not including its antenna.

The battery-powered robots are launched by boat at the surface of the sea. They can adjust their buoyancy in order to move between the surface and a depth of about 2,000 metres, taking measurements along the way about every 10 days. When they are not taking measurements, they sit at a depth of about 1,000 metres, where there is no light and few living things that could grow on the robot and damage its sensors. The batteries in each probe last about four or five years, Freeland said.

Canada has deployed about 300 of the robots since the project started in 2000, and about 80 are currently in service, mostly off Alaska and in the North Atlantic.

Most of the robots in the search area in the Indian Ocean are Australian and American.

Below is a video created by Howard Freeland of robots moving through the search zone between January 2007 and the present. Click here for more details.