Minor MH370 Mystery Resolved

Did a missing AUV like this one cause an international furor?


On January 31, Seabed Constructor vanished from the ship-tracking websites that various observers had been monitoring. This set up a minor international tizzy, with a number of outlets publishing headlines such as “MH370 mystery deepens as search vessel vanishes off radar for three days sending conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.”

The ship had been acting strangely in the hours leading up to its disappearance, sailing around in a big circle and then steaming in a beeline towards southwestern part of the search area, where it had started its work weeks before. It was in the midst of this beeline run that its AIS tracking system was apparently turned off. (This disappearance had nothing to do with radar, but whatever.)

Seabed Constructor reappeared a few days later, this time heading for a scheduled resupply stop in Perth. Ocean Infinity offered no explanation for what had happened. Some of the more imaginative independent MH370 researchers speculated that the ship had surreptiously been plundering shipwrecks found during the first seabed search.

On February 8, the notoriously unreliable Australian aviation journalist Geoffrey Thomas wrote a story in Perth Now claiming that the explanation was that the searchers had found found some interesting “geological formations” and “had returned to revisit those points of interest discovered on its first sweep and turned off its satellite tracking system so as not to give the relatives false hopes.”

Coming from Thomas, this almost certainly had to be untrue. Sure enough, more evidence has now emerged, and it appears that some kind of equipment fault was to blame.

The eighth search update released this morning by the Malaysian government reveals that “Earlier during the underwater search operation, an ROV was damaged and a decision was made to ‘wet store’ the ROV to minimize disruption to search operations.” Probably whoever wrote this meant AUV, autonomous underwater vehicle, rather than ROV, remotely operated vehicle, since ROVs are used to hone in on a target once it’s been identified. So far the search has found no targets.

Most likely, what happened is that at the end of January one of the AUVs went rogue, Seabed Constructor sailed around trying to find it, realized that it was probably at the southwestern corner of the search area, sailed down to go look for it–and while doing so realized that its bizarre behavior was being watched and so shut off the AIS to avoid further embarrassment.

Yesterday Richard Cole tweeted that Seabed Constructor had apparently deployed seven AUVS at the southern end of the southern leg of the secondary search zone, then dashed down to where the AUV lay on the seabed and deployed its ROV to retrieve it. “Probably the most complex search configuration we have seen so far,” he observed.

Earlier this morning Seabed Constructor finished its ROV work and hurried northward to gather up the AUVs, which were nearing the end of their endurance.

I’m guessing that the AUVs have a feature whereby if they lose communications with the mother ship they go to a predesignated point and rest on the seabed to conserve energy until they can be recovered.

I love the euphemism “wet store,” by the way. This is a major advancement in nautical terminology. If it had been around in 1912 then the White Star Line could have just said that the Titanic had been put in wet storage.

In other news, the latest report says that Seabed Constructor has now scanned 24,000 sq km. That doesn’t mean it’s 1,000 sq km from finishing the designated search area, though, because it still has to do the “southern leg” segments of the secondary and tertiary zones. These are not large however and should not take more than a few days.