By Hadi Azmi
Malaysia’s government agreed Wednesday to pay an American firm up to U.S. $70 million (280 million ringgit) to find the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which disappeared four years ago, within an Indian Ocean area ranging to at least 25,000 square km.
The government and Houston-based Ocean Infinity Ltd. signed off on a deal by which the firm agreed it would be paid only if any of its eight high-tech Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) finds the debris field from the missing Boeing 777 or the plane’s black-box in-flight recorders within three months, starting “imminently.”
“The contract is on a ‘no cure, no fee’ basis within a 90-day time frame. The search operation is scheduled to commence mid-January 2018,” Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters after a Wednesday signing ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital. The agreement states Ocean Infinity will be paid only if it finds the airliner’s wreckage.
The new search marks the first time in a year that Malaysia is resuming an undersee hunt for the wreckage of MH370, which is believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean with 239 passengers and crew on board. It drifted off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
In January 2017, Malaysia, China and Australia called off a search for the missing plane after spending nearly three years scouring an area of 120,000 square km (46,332 square miles) in Indian Ocean waters off the western Australian coast. That search area was selected based on satellite analyses of the flight’s presumed path.
“To all the family members and loved ones on board MH370, we are with you during these trying times,” the minister told relatives of passengers and crew who were at the ceremony.
The minister said Ocean Infinity would search for the wreckage of flight MH370 within a designated area of the southern Indian Ocean ranging from 5,000 square km (1,930.5 square miles) to at least 25,000 square km (9,652.5 square miles).
“Ocean Infinity will take on the economic risk of the renewed search, only receiving payment if the aircraft wreckage is located,” the firm said in a statement posted on its website Wednesday.
Search to start Jan. 17
Under the terms of the deal, the government will pay the firm $20 million (80.1 million ringgit) if its submersible drones find the debris field within an area of 5,000 square km, or up to $50 million (200.4 million ringgit) within an area of up to 25,000 square km (9,652.5 square miles), officials said.
If the subs find the airliner’s wreckage beyond a radius of 25,000 square km, Malaysia will pay the firm $70 million (280.6 million ringgit), officials said. Ocean Infinity will be rewarded if it pinpoints the location of the debris field or discovers the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.
“As we speak, the vessel Seabed Constructor is on her way to the search area, taking advantage of the favorable weather conditions in the South Indian Ocean,” Tiong Lai said, referring to a ship carrying the eight AUVs and operated by Ocean Infinity, a company that specializes in collecting high-resolution geophysical seabed data.
The vessel will have 65 people on board, including two Malaysian government representatives, officials said.
Oliver Plunkett, the firm’s CEO who attended the signing ceremony, said imaging technology developed by his team, as well as new data on current movements, would aid in identifying the debris field with better accuracy than in previous efforts.
“We have eight unmanned underwater vehicles, or underwater drones, that can sweep the ocean floor running at the same time, beaming the information back to onboard ships,” he told journalists, adding that the operation would begin Jan. 17.
The eight AUVs are “free flying,” which means they can travel untethered and can dive to depths of 6,000 meters (19,685 feet), Ocean Infinity said.
Citing discoveries of debris believed to be from MH370 that swept ashore on Reunion Island, a French territory in the western Indian Ocean in August 2015, and new ocean-current patterns, Plunkett was optimistic that his firm could solve the aviation mystery.
“We would like to say we are 80 percent confident but we don’t want to put a percentage on our chances,” Plunkett said. Experts from his company were involved in finding the wreckage of Air France flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.
In August 2015, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced a team of international experts had confirmed that debris found on Reunion were from MH370, and this marked the first physical evidence the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
Of the 239 people on board MH370, 153 were Chinese nationals and 38 were Malaysians.
“We just want to know what happened, a closure,” a relative of one of the people aboard the doomed flight, told BenarNews, identifying himself only as “Nathan.”
“It’s a bit difficult to come to a closure without knowing what happened to our loved ones.”