The Search For Malaysia Airlines MH370 Is Now Being Aided By Robots

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 - which vanished earlier this month with nary a trace - has thus far been fruitless. Although men and women around the world have done their best to contribute through Google Earth, although salvage and search crews have been combing the oceans ever since the flight disappeared, no one has come up with anything.  For all intents and purposes, it has vanished without a trace.

Whether from mechanical failure, terrorist activity or pilot error is currently unclear. 

All we know currently is that the flight dropped off the radar shortly after disappearing altogether; satellite footage (which somewhat distressingly took several weeks to actually surface) shows that it diverted significantly from its original route, eventually winding up somewhere over the Indian Ocean - which hardly narrows it down. Why it ended up there and where it went both remain a mystery.

It's not like salvage crews have the luxury of time, either. The plane's black box only has about two weeks or so before it runs out of power. If they don't find it before then, what happened to MH370 will forevermore be a mystery.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teams have as a result turned to robotics for a bit of much-needed assistance combing the 1.6 million square kilometers of water where the plane may have ended up. 

Argo is a little-known system designed to survey temperature, salinity, and currents in the Earth's oceans. Operational since the early 2000s, the fleet consists of 3,600 small, floating robots, deployed by countries from all over the world. The robot looks fairly simplistic - large, metallic cylinders about 15 centimeters in diameter, each one about the height of a small child.

Each of these robots is launched by boat on the surface of the sea, and capable of adjusting its buoyancy in order to move between the surface and depths of about two thousand meters. This allows them to collect data over an area of about 300 square kilometers, which is then fed via satellite to organizations such as Australian global ocean forecasting system BLUElink. According to Argo program director Howard Freeland, this monitoring system could potentially be used to predict where the debris may have headed.

"They can map currents in real time," said Freeland, on a phone interview with CBC. This will, he continued, allow the teams to work out more than just where the debris might have gone. If anyone should happen to find a piece of the aircraft, data from the system can run in reverse. 

"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," he added.

The loss of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is an inarguable tragedy, one which will only be made worse if the families of those on-board cannot receive some form of closure. Hopefully, with the use of Argo, search teams will be able to locate the plane's black box, and finally put this sad saga to rest for good.