Businessweek: Underwater Drones Nearly Triple Data From the Ocean Floor


Last November a small seabed-exploration company out of Houston called Ocean Infinity made the discovery of a lifetime–or so it seemed, until it made another three months later. First, Ocean Infinity successfully located the remains of the San Juan, an Argentine navy sub that had vanished while on patrol. Then it found the wreck of the Stellar Daisy, a South Korean bulk ore carrier. Both vessels had been missing for more than a year, which often means a wreck won’t ever be found. The two-year-old company’s secret was teamwork: a set of eight drone subs working in tandem to scan a much larger area in record time.

These successes could be part of a broader shift in how humanity understands the sea. We know far more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean, but seabed-scanning technology is growing sophisticated enough to render the inky depths much more transparent. Seabed 2030, a joint project of two nonprofits, aims to map the entire ocean floor by its namesake year. Key to that effort is Kongsberg Maritime AS, the Norwegian company that made Ocean Infinity’s subs.

Bjorn Jalving, senior vice president of Kongsberg’s subsea division, says the Hugin, its flagship drone, is a testament to advances in robotic strength and stamina. Hugins can dive as deep as 20,000 feet and stay underwater for 72 hours at a stretch. Costing $5 million to $10 million apiece depending on the onboard instruments they have and the depths they can handle, the drones are hardy enough, Jalving says, that “you let them out in the ocean, and you know that they’ll come back.” They’re also packed with sensors, including sonar that can cover five times the area of models from a decade ago, with 10 times the detail.

The subs can also transfer, process, and share much larger amounts of data with distant control centers than was possible before. Five years ago, Fugro NV, the Dutch survey and geosciences company responsible for searching the Indian Ocean for the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, relied on crewed survey boats that towed sonar gear on long cables up and down the seafloor as shipboard analysts monitored incoming data. Today the company streams field data to command centers onshore and plans to do away with some crews entirely.

Since 2017, Seabed 2030 has single-handedly increased the percentage of the seabed that’s been surveyed from 6% to 15%, mostly by compiling data from the likes of Fugro and Ocean Infinity. Fugro keeps mapping even when it’s moving ships between jobs. Beyond potential benefits such as finding clearer routes for undersea internet cables or energy pipelines, the extra intel will help answer big scientific questions related to climate change, says Larry Mayer, who contributes to Seabed 2030 as director of the Center for Coastal & Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. “How heat is distributed has to do with currents, and where those currents go is determined by where there are ridges and valleys and things,” he says. “It’s the most fundamental information that we can get.”

Just as the first sequencing of the human genome led to businesses sequencing many other people’s genomes, seabed mapping could one day become routine, or even just an ongoing process, helping to track things such as pollution, ocean warming, and fish stocks. “It will enable the world’s decision-makers to sustainably manage the oceans,” Jalving says.

For now, though, the oceans are keeping a great many secrets. After Fugro failed to find MH370, Ocean Infinity gave the search a shot last year, scanning 43,000 miles in five months—about 15 times the pace in 2014. That team, like Fugro’s, found nothing.

This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2019 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

29 thoughts on “Businessweek: Underwater Drones Nearly Triple Data From the Ocean Floor”

  1. Good news! The Atlantic magazine has solved the mystery of Flight 370. It was Zaharie, because evidence that the writer can’t share with us.

    This is good to know! I mean, it doesn’t explain half of the questions Jeff has inspired with his work, but it kind of, sort of, answers some. And if you just believe that Zaharie did it, you don’t have to worry about it happening ever again!

    He even namedrops Jeff , and his nutty theory about how you can’t trust any of the info that the satellites logged. The writer doesn’t address it. He mentions Wise’s (I thought tacit) allegation that the debris has been planted – seems to dismiss it – then spins out hundreds of words that obviously show how unlikely that one person would find so many pieces.

    Oh well – Jeff Wise is so wrong that “pages could be spent explaining why.”

    Except the writer doesn’t.

  2. That article is so ridiculous. Pathetic that a regurgitation of old bovine feces qualifies as a new development. What’s even worse is that it will go viral again.

  3. I have to say I expected better from the author of the article William Langewiesche. I really have to go back and reexamine his previous writings now. As @Sunken Deal and @Paul Rise point out above, he glosses over things, makes unsubstantiated assumptions, and disparages alternatives gratuitously. I can tell because I have been following MH370 in depth for years. I now question his writing on other topics with which I was less familiar.
    Can’t wait to read your response Jeff!

  4. You folks shouldn’t dismiss the Atlantic story so quickly. There was evidence at the time, though not in the US media but in Australia and New Zealand:

    Odd that the Atlantic author doesn’t even mention the Islamist angle. Seems likely that, after a convergence of personal and political reverses, chose the murder/suicide option with the hope that Allah would interpret his actions favorably.

    Rob Anderson

  5. Although The Atlantic’s article is reaching too far when it delves into ZS’s ‘personal’ issues to find reasons to implicate him as the perp, I’m now much more open to the idea that ZS and the Malaysian govt. may not be completely innocent in this saga.
    The article is accurate in it’s description of the main investigations/inquiries, and it’s conclusion that further investigation should focus on Malaysian govt.’s desire to cover up the whole affair.
    The French NoK Ghyslain Wattrelos and journalist Florence de Changy have been beating this drum literally from Day 5, and the world is now slowly coming around to their point of view.

    Let me clear: ZS and Malaysian govt. DID NOT divert the aircraft toward the Indian Ocean, and mass murder 200+ innocent civilians. However, the reason MH370 was targeted by the real culprits may have something to do with what Malaysia was doing secretly with this aircraft, hence the coverup.

  6. @All,

    The above has been rehashed in a Fox News article;

    Lots of questions including assertions the Captain Zaharie had separated (is this true???). Also there is the oxymoron of “disintegrated into confetti” and pictures or quite large wing parts from 9M MRO.

    A final comment made has merit “Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say,” Langewiesche notes. “The riddle may not be deep.”

  7. @CliffG, do you think that ZS was involved in whatever it was that you say Malaysia was doing with MH370 or was he more of an unwitting mule? There seems to be little in his behavior that we know of that would indicate a co-conspirator.

    Likewise, and just one more of many great disappointments in the Atlantic article is how it does not address how different ZH’s movements would have been than ANY OTHER acknowledged pilot suicide.

    @SteveBarratt, I find the statement about police competence just as intellectually lazy–and meritless–as his belief in pilot control in those final hours. It presumes levels of competence of agencies in a country the author has seemingly explored less than anyone commenting here–and ones that are likely unknowable. Second, and though it’s been a long time since I studied Philosophy, it seems a logical fallacy–a false dichotomy with a bit of appeal to ignorance thrown in. The police need not be incompetent to known nothing more about ZH than has been publicly stated–and even if they do know more, those facts are not necessarily relevant to the perpetrators or even motive.

    Having worked in media for many years, I know exactly how these kinds of stories come together and how cavalierly a writer and his or her editor can make decisions that intentionally or unintentionally slant a story while dismissing and diminishing other points of view. I’m not saying this is often, or in this case, done with malice, but even with the best of intentions there is always an agenda, even if it is to make the author and its outlet look smarter than all the other people who actually get into the real and nuanced details of a story like this.

  8. @ScottO
    The previous 2 posts on VI’s blog have ‘sort of’ convinced me of the following:
    – although there is some doubt about who exactly spoke the words ‘good night Malaysian 370’, the transponder was turned off exactly at IGARI, very soon after those words were uttered. Hence, it was most probably the pilot who was responsible for turning off the transponders. So why did ZS do it?
    – the flight from IGARI towards the Malacca Strait involved a swing around Penang airport. The approach to Penang appears to have been preprogrammed into the AP, and to radar observers, the flight path to Penang may have been of suggestive of pilot’s intention to land there. How did the pilot (or perp) know that he can succeed in deceiving the radar operators into believing he is a ‘friendly’, and is going to land at Penang?

    In TV interviews and press briefings, the Malaysian defense minister inadvertently left the impression that the military radar operators was aware of the ‘turnback’ in real-time and knew that the aircraft was ‘civilian’ and one of their own. If the military was ‘following’ the plane from the time the transponder was turned off, they must have had a good reason for doing so. Either the plane emitted an IFF signal that only the Malaysian military recognized, but was invisible to civilian radar, OR they must have ‘expected’ and were unsurprised that the transponder switched off somewhere near IGARI.
    Yet, the Malaysians genuinely appear to have been caught off-guard by the turnback, as well as the flight up the Malacca straits, because they insisted on checking the South China sea first before admitting that the plane that turned back was indeed MH370. So it could not have been an IFF signal, because it definitively identifies an aircraft.

    All of this suggests that the transponder being turned off at IGARI by ZS was to be expected/anticipated by the Malaysian military, and the flight was also expected to continue it’s journey to Beijing.
    But the Chinese would not have allowed an aircraft to fly into Beijing without a transponder signal, so it can be assumed that at some point in the journey, perhaps nearing the coast of China, the aircraft was expected to turn the transponder back on.

    Question: why would MH370, flying at night, switch off it’s radar transponder, fly over the South China Sea, then switch it back on as it approaches China?

    Either it was carrying surveillance equipment intended for spying on the Chinese in the South China Sea, OR another surveillance aircraft was ‘spoofing’ the MH370 transponder signal while doing surveillance on the Chinese.

  9. @ScottO
    Evidence for the above hypothesis:
    – Christine Negroni, in her otherwise forgettable book on MH370, exclusively reported that auditors found MAS failed to adhere to ‘plane following’ regulations, and it was brought to the attention of Minister of Transport, who also happens to be Minister of Defense in Sep 2013. Apparently nothing changed.
    – BBC’s Jonah Fisher asked Minister HH in Apr 2014 about who was paying for the search. The minister replied: ‘what is Ukraine costing everybody, and Middle East, etc.’ Then in a curious turn, he says what is the cost of patrolling ‘these rocks’ in the S.China Sea?
    – CCTV interviewed HH, and again he mentioned Ukraine, Middle East, Asean, and he was quoted in 2013 as saying he was OK with letting Chinese PLAN ships patrol SCS.
    – French NOK Ghyslain Wattrelos mentioned in his book that he got from reliable sources that there were 2 AWACS aircraft in the vicinity of MH370 when it disappeared. One could have been Singapore AF Gulfstream The other is probably USNavy P8, or RAAF Wedgetail (also based on the B737 frame like the P8).
    – Wattrelos also mentioned that French investigators were seeking evidence (OR more importantly LACK THEREOF) from SITA which provides the ‘plane following’ network data and ACARS. If there were gaps in the record of flights flying over the SCS in the past year, then it can be surmised that the transponder and ACARS were being turned off on the regular basis on these flights to allow for covert surveillance ops
    – According to Edward Snowden’s revelations, in the 5 EYES network, Australia was responsible for monitoring the South China Sea. Australia has a history going back to the Cold War when it followed Soviet subs transiting from the SCS to the Malacca Straits as part of Operation Gateway. It would be in Australia’s interest to keep the MH370 saga hush hush as well.

  10. I notice Bellingcat have released some more information on MH17 along with the Dutch Charges.

    Is it significant that Bellingcat has never seemed to show any interest in MH370?

  11. @Crobbie, I’ve been in ongoing contact with Bellingcat and have enormous respect for them. I ascribe their lack of interest in MH370 mostly to a lack of material that’s suitable for their methods. They’re great at sifting through large amounts of publicly available data such as social media postings. I’ve solicited their help in trying to learn more about Chustrak, Brodsky, the Deinekas, and Gibson, but they didn’t get back to me. Might just be too far-out for them.

  12. Something that strikes me about “The Atlantic” article is that the author speculates that whoever was piloting intentionally depressurized the plane and ascended to 40,000 feet. He goes on to say that the then-deployed oxygen masks only provide for 15 minutes of use in the cabin, but for hours of use in the cockpit, meaning that the pilot could continue flying manually for a long time while the passengers and the rest of the crew were unconscious or dead.

    He further states that the oxygen masks are useless at 40,000 feet/

    I find this a rather contradictory argument. If the oxygen masks were ineffective at 40,000 feet, then wouldn’t everybody be dead, regardless if they had 15 minutes of use, or eight hours of use?

  13. @Nate, the masks in the cockpit are of the pressurised kind. Like it says in the article: “The cockpit, by contrast, was equipped with four pressurized-oxygen masks linked to hours of supply. Whoever depressurized the airplane would have simply had to slap one on.”

  14. @koebeen. I’m not an aviation expert by any stretch, so I didn’t realize there would be a difference. But thank you for the clarification!

  15. @Nate Reeves, The idea still doesn’t really make any sense, though. You don’t need to climb to 40,000 feet to depressurize the cabin to the point where people would pass out and die. And if you were trying to get away as quickly as possible you wouldn’t climb.

  16. @Jeff too long a shot for them perhaps. Like you say too little of the right type of data.

    Their work on MH17 seems to have been successful and impactful. I hadnt realised how small an organisation it actually is. Small and mighty!

  17. @ABN397,

    There’s not just a little absurdity in the story from RT, which is indeed a mouthpiece for Kremlin interests.

    When exactly does any suspect get to participate in the investigation of his guilt?

    Why would an innocent bystander be investigated by prosecutors?

    Those two questions raised by the Russian lawyer are precisely intended to create mistrust and doubt in not denial in the average reader. And to blame the Ukraine for not closing its airspace is just one more diversion. Hundreds of flights had been taking that same route for weeks, including, a nearby overflight of Vladimir Putin’s plane. If the Kremlin were so concerned about flight at 30,000 feet, would not the president’s plane have avoided the area altogether? BTW, it was RT that reported on Putin’s plane when it tried to suggest that the Ukraine was responsible for MH17, thinking it was the Russian aircraft they were targeting. RT news and Kremlin statements like not just to have it both ways, but to have it EVERY way the better to make truth as elusive as possible.

  18. @Cliff, in response to your question of June 18 regarding why MH370 would turn off and then restart its transponder, I guess I would ask, why indeed? Any large normal aircraft is likely still recognizable to military radar with or without the transponder, and, if that’s the case, it only draws that much more attention to itself for being dark. The common thread between the best conmen, magicians and spies is to do what they do in plain sight so well that people either disbelieve their senses or aren’t aware of what trick is being played. Yelling, look over there, and then turning out the lights never fools anyone.

    Other points in your above posts, though well taken, can have many other answers. The defense minister could have been wrong. He could have wanted to give the impression that his military was more capable than it is. The response about costs–one current crisis, one long-lived, another growing–it doesn’t seem so odd he’d mention any of those regarding money spent relative to money spent searching for civilians. Another aircraft would have had to be stealthy enough to be invisible to military radar (or identified by its signature size and speed) and so wouldn’t have needed to spoof MH370. Etc., etc.

    I don’t know where this leaves us, but I do believe from your first supposition–that the pilot or even the copilot spoke the words “Good Night” twice, not under duress or not by someone else–to be as unstable as any other supposition any one of us has made on this blog since its start.

  19. @ScottO
    I don’t disagree with your point that conmen, magicians, & spies perform tricks in plain sight so that people disbelieve their senses. That is exactly what the Malaysians & their Australian or American allies may have been doing to shipborne Chinese radar operators in the South China Sea in 2012-2014 when they were spying on Chinese military activities in the S.China Sea.

    This is the sequence of events, I think, in this reconnaisance operation:
    – Malaysian or Singapore based commercial aircraft takes off at night, flying towards Beijing (or another Chinese city) with a planeload of mostly Chinese passengers.
    – Military recconaissance aircraft which can match the speed of B777 such as USN P-8, or RAAF Wedgetail takes off from Malaysia or Singapore
    – Both aircraft approach predetermined waypoint (ex. IGARI)
    – soon as B777 reaches waypoint, pilot says good bye to Malaysian/Singapore ATC and pilot turns off transponder.
    – military aircraft which is monitoring the conversation then makes contact with the next ATC (Vietnam/Philippines) with someone onboard who speaks with same voice/accent as pilot of airliner, and identify themselves as the civilian aircraft. They also turn on a transponder code that matches the commercial aircraft’s transponder code. They will of course have turned off their own transponder prior to this.
    – military aircraft flies close behind B777, and is hidden in the bigger aircraft’s radar shadow. To any Chinese radar only one aircraft cross section is visible, and it corresponds to the transponder code of the commercial aircraft.
    – both aircraft fly over night-time Chinese military installations/activity and take close-up, high resolution, IR or SAR images that cannot be obtained via satellites.
    – after completion of this task, both aircraft approach another predetermined waypoint where the military aircraft turns off the ‘spoofed’ transponder signal, and the commercial aircraft turns it back on, and makes radio contact with Chinese ATC.

    The beauty of this plan is that the commercial aircraft never has to be in contact with the military aircraft, the pilot merely has to obey his orders, let his aircraft fly according to the flight plan.
    Considering the co-pilot was still in training, and would listen to his captain’s instructions, he may been kept busy with routine tasks, unrelated to communications with ATC. He wouldn’t have to be involved in the conspiracy.

  20. @Abn397… Exactly. Putin was acutely aware of that incident. When he became president in 2000, the first Hero of the Russian Fed. medal he awarded was to the Russian general who ordered the shootdown of KAL007.

  21. @CliffG
    Flying in a radar shadow of another aircraft also means flying in a IFF/SSR (secondary radar) shadow also. Indeed the primary radar triggers the IFF transponder.
    Lastly the flight was at night time which is never best for images.

  22. @CargoH… Clearly the Chinese radar operators won’t be expecting every commercial aircraft to respond to IFF interrogation, so the ISR aircraft is not going to respond except with the spoofed SSR Mh370 squawk code with Mh370 flying dark alongside it.
    Infrared (IR) & Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) are ideal for taking night time images.

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