Mar 21 2:40 PM

U.S. engineer's sub on standby to help find MH370

Engineer Mike Purcell shows an unmanned submarine he helped design to America Tonight correspondent Lori Jane Gliha.
America Tonight

WOODS HOLE, Mass. – For days, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's phones have been ringing off their hooks. People from around the world – mostly media – want to know whether engineer Mike Purcell’s submarine might be called into action again to help find a missing plane.

Inside Purcell’s lab, you can’t miss the giant yellow submarine sitting on a workbench. It looks just like you’d expect a submarine to look – 12 feet long, with a propeller and big blue letters spelling out its name: Remus 6000. Named for the 6,000 meters – almost four miles – it can descend, this underwater drone helped find Air France Flight 447 in 2011, after it had been lost in the depths of the Atlantic for two years.

Tucked along the Cape Cod coast, the WHOI is among the best in the world when it comes to finding the remnants of ill-fated voyages. In the 1980s, they used similar technology to find the Titanic on the ocean floor.

It wouldn't surprise the staff to be asked to help search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 once the search area shrinks.

“The search on the surface is huge, and it is not practical to do that kind of search with underwater vehicles,” said Purcell, the center’s principal engineer. Even though the target area has been narrowed after satellite images showed possible debris off the coast of Australia, it's still far too large for a submarine that can scan just 25 square miles a day. Purcell said that without a more defined area, “it would take the rest of my lifetime and part of my next one to conduct that search.”

It would take the rest of my lifetime and part of my next one to conduct that search.

Mike Purcell

The unmanned water vehicles successfully found the missing Air France flight because they knew where the plane went down fairly soon after the incident, and the search area stood at 5,000 square miles, Purcell explained. But he's been following all the developments in the hunt for the Malaysia flight, in case the search area is dramatically reduced and their technology is called to action. 

“I think our technology could be really valuable especially if it’s determined that the debris site could be located in areas where the seafloor is really rough,” he said. “They’re really good at navigating that kind of terrain so they’re able to collect good data.”

The technology, developed in the 1990s, “resembles a lawnmower” when it travels through the water, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The submarine is equipped with a scan SONAR sensor that sends out a ping every second, and then records the sounds that bounce off the ocean floor. Sand, mud, rocks and manmade objects all reflect the sound differently, and the sensor maps all the data to help scientists understand what’s down there.

“We get fooled sometimes,” Purcell said, explaining how rocks sometimes appear to be manmade objects. “Any time we see a potential target, we’ll program the vehicle on the next mission to swim down to that same location and in this case, it swims really close to the seafloor.”

The search process can be lengthy. During the search for the Air France wreck, crews searched for more than 40 days in 2010, but turned up nothing. A year later, it took three search submarines more than a week of round-the-clock missions before they finally found something that appeared to be part of the crashed aircraft. Photographs confirmed that it was.

But even if debris is found for the missing Malaysian jet, scientists must analyze how far it might have traveled as a result of wind and currents before search crews can determine exactly where to look under the water. It could be months, Purcell said, before any crew plunges into the deep sea to begin a search and recovery mission for the rest of the plane.

“It’s always sort of fun to be out there on the hunt – out there on the water to try to find something,” Purcell said. “It does get your pulse going a little bit.”

Finding the fallen Air France flight left him with mixed emotions though. “You’re definitely really happy to confirm it, but it was pretty sobering,” he said. “The debris is spread across the seafloor, and it was evidence that tragedies happen.”

Confirming debris for the Malalysia flight would feel the same, Purcell said. "My first thought about that was that it was sort of sad, because maybe that confirms that the plane crashed into the ocean and it’s going to eliminate hope for the families,” he said. “But from the standpoint of an underwater search, it might be the clue that is helpful in eventually finding the plane.” 

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