An American search vessel is en route to the Southern Indian Ocean on a new hunt for the missing MH370 airliner under an agreement with the government of Malaysia that will pay up to $70 million if the company can find the wreckage of the plane or its two flight recorders within 3 months.
Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai said Wednesday that The Seabed Constructor, operated by the Houston company Ocean Infinity, will be searching in a 9,000 square-mile area with a crew of 65, and two members of the Royal Malaysia Navy. The ship left Durban, South Africa, last week to take advantage of improving weather in the search area beginning around Jan. 17.
The agreement for a 90-day search is on a "no find, no fee" basis, the transport minister told reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s federal administrative center. Malaysia will pay up to $70 million if the company is able to find the wreckage of the plane and/or both of the fight recorders.
Ocean Infinity Chief Executive Oliver Plunkett said eight autonomous underwater vehicles, which are drones fitted with high-tech cameras, sonars and sensors, will be dispatched to map the seabed. He said the underwater drones can cover 463 square miles a day and complete the 9,600-square-mile area within a month.
“We have a realistic prospect of finding it,” he said. “While there can be no guarantees of locating the aircraft, we believe our system of multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously is well suited to the task at hand.”
The airliner went missing March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. For unknown reasons, it suddenly shifted course along the scheduled route and headed south over the Indian Ocean.
The plane’s electronics, which separately transmitted its location or maintenance information, stopped signaling early in the flight. But the plane is presumed to have stayed in the air more than seven hours, until it ran out of fuel, based on electronic signals that a satellite detected.
More than 500 days after the crash, a piece of the wing called a flaperon was the first confirmed debris to wash up, on the island of La Reunion, in July 2015.
At least 18 pieces of the plane, including parts of an engine cowling and a bulkhead panel, eventually were recovered from beaches in Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.
The last search, mounted by the governments of Australia, Malaysia and China, lasted nearly three years and cost $160 million before it ended in January 2017.
The new search will focus on an area about the size of Vermont that is adjacent to the area already searched and which experts called promising after the official search ended.
Payment is based on a sliding scale, starting at $20 million if the items are found earlier within a 2,000-square-mile section of the main search area.
The minister said the team will update the families of those involved by text and email and will update the progress of the mission on the official website.
“I feel very happy but at the same time very panicky whether it can be found or not. Now it’s back to four years ago where we have to wait everyday (to find out) whether debris can be found,” said Shin Kok Chau, whose wife Tan Ser Kuin was a flight attendant on MH370.
Contributing: Bart Jansen; Associated Press