Deep sea subs will likely find missing AF black boxes

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Deep sea subs will likely find missing AF black boxes

Unread post by bimjim » Tue Aug 31, 2010

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Deep sea subs will likely find missing Air France black boxes: Expert
By Richard Foot, Postmedia News
August 26, 2010

Fifteen months after an Air France jumbo jet inexplicably dropped out of the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board, underwater expert Mike Dessner says the world should not give up hope — the aircraft's two missing "black boxes" will almost certainly be found.

"I'm confident those boxes can and will be found, it's just a matter of time," he says.

Dessner is director of operations for the Waitt Institute, a private, California-based research outfit that funds ocean exploration projects. He departed St. John's this week on board an expedition ship bound for the wreck of the Titanic, 350 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Waitt Institute owns two of the world's most advanced robotic submarines, which it is lending to the expedition so oceanographers can carry out the first, full archaeological survey of the Titanic shipwreck.

Earlier this year, the Institute loaned its robot subs to the French government, in its search for the underwater wreck of Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the middle of the South Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.

Unlike most other high-profile airline tragedies, the loss of Flight 447 remains a subject of mystery and conjecture, largely because the Airbus A330-200's black boxes— the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, which contain the clues investigators need to figure out exactly why the plane crashed — have never been found.

The French government called off the search effort last spring and have not announced when or if it will continue. Dessner says the search should be renewed because his subs have the ability, he says, to find the aircraft's black boxes.

"It's a sensitive issue," he says. "This is an accident investigation and there's a couple of hundred families whose loved ones are gone, so I don't want to give those families the impression that we're absolutely going to find them.

"But if we keep looking, I feel confident that eventually we'll find the debris field of the plane. And once the debris field is found, it's just a matter of time before these subs track down the black boxes."

The subs are relatively new technology. While most remotely operated submersibles are tethered to ships on the surface, the robot subs — called REMUS 6000 Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) — are dropped into the water without tethers or tow lines. They operate on their own power and navigate a course, up to six-kilometres deep, following pre-set instructions inside a built-in computer.

The subs are equipped with sonar, cameras and other sensors that detect objects on the ocean floor and transmit that information to engineers on the surface.

The REMUS subs failed to find Flight 447's wreckage or debris field earlier this year. But Dessner says that's because the aircraft vanished in some very difficult deepwater terrain.

While the Titanic lies at 3,800 metres on a relatively flat sea floor, the Air France wreckage is believed to lie up to 4,700 metres deep among what Dessner describes as a rugged, underwater mountain range.

In a recent interview on board the Titanic expedition ship, Dessner pointed to the deep scars and scratches on the nose cone of one the robot subs — evidence of the pounding it took slamming into submerged mountainsides last spring in the South Atlantic.

"These things took a beating during that search," says Dessner. "But the system is extremely robust."

He also says the subs are extremely useful and can explore large areas of the deep ocean bottom more efficiently than any other technology available.

Dessner says the Waitt Institute and the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which helps operate the subs, are currently in discussions with the French to return for another search of the Air France crash site.

"I anticipate that by next year at the latest, they'll be back out there again looking for them."

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