Archive for August, 2017

Ocean Infinity CEO Discusses MH370 Search Offer

Oliver Plunkett, CEO of Ocean Infinity

I had the opportunity to converse with Oliver Plunkett, who is the CEO of Ocean Infinity (OI). My goal was to learn more about OI’s offer to search for MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO). Although Mr Plunkett would not disclose the details of the confidential negotiations with Malaysia, he did provide information that is helpful to understanding the general terms of OI’s proposal.

First, OI’s offer is structured such that OI assumes 100% of the economic risk for the search. OI will NOT receive any payment if the wreckage is not found. So it would appear that if the success fee that OI is proposing is less than what Malaysia would have spent in conducting the search using conventional techniques, this is an extremely attractive offer.

I learned a bit more about the recent sea trials that Ocean Infinity recently conducted in the North Atlantic. The tests demonstrated that the underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs) could be successfully launched and recovered. Each AUV also demonstrated that it could independently scan the seabed. Mr Plunkett said he was pleased with the results so far. Further work is planned at deeper depths and over a wider range of conditions. Mr Plunkett also explained that although the unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) could not be used in the roughest of sea states, the search for MH370 could nonetheless occur over a wide range of conditions. This is because the mission is to scan the seabed and identify the wreckage rather than to generate precise maps.

I inquired about the window of opportunity for completing the negotiations with Malaysia and starting the search. (We know from previous underwater search efforts that the search season in the SIO runs approximately from December to March.) Mr Plunkett is optimistic that Malaysia and OI will reach an agreement in a time frame that allows for adequate time to prepare for a search that begins this season.

Finally, I asked whether OI had already determined the specific area to search. Mr Plunkett explained that OI intends to complement its internal resources with input from other organizations and other outside experts to help define the search area. OI has already had some interaction with the ATSB, which he believes is completely committed to finding the wreckage. I don’t expect that OI’s search area will be very different than what we have been discussing here.

Over the course of our discussion, it became apparent that Mr Plunkett was aware of the many posts and discussions that appear on this blog.

With such a favorable offer on the table from an innovative and qualified firm, I remain optimistic that the seabed search will re-start. However, for the search to begin this season, the window of opportunity to complete the negotiations is narrowing. It is imperative that Malaysia not miss this opportunity.

Update on Aug 16, 2017

In a story appearing the New Straits Times, Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) reveals that the OI proposal to restart the subsea search is one of several proposals that are under review. The proposals will be brought to the attention of Australia and China for their views.

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Seabed Explorer Ocean Infinity Offers to Search for MH370

Ocean Infinity’s technology uses multiple underwater drones and surface vessels with a single host vessel

Yesterday, a support group for MH370 families released a statement claiming that a private entity has offered to resume the seabed search for the aircraft with the understanding that it would collect a fee only if the aircraft wreckage was found. Today, through Grace Nathan, a Malaysian lawyer whose mother was a passenger on MH370, we learn that the private entity is a US-based firm called Ocean Infinity.

Readers here are already familiar with Ocean Infinity. In a recent post entitled Advanced Underwater Drones May Help Find MH370, I highlighted the innovative research at Virginia Tech in developing underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs) that could collaboratively scan the ocean floor. In an update to the article, I stated:

I was recently in a discussion that included a well-known ocean explorer who happens to be a judge in the Ocean Discovery XPrize competition.  We were having a general discussion about searching for MH370 and ways to scan the ocean floor at high resolution, and he told us about the capabilities of Ocean Infinity. Like the team at Virginia Tech, their approach is to employ a team of AUVs. From their website:

Six HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are capable of operating in 6,000 m water depth collecting high resolution data at record breaking speeds. Our AUV fleet is accompanied by six unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) to ensure precise position and constant communication.

With multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously utilizing innovative technology, we are able to survey huge swaths of the seabed, quickly and with outstanding accuracy. We can operate in shallow waters but excel in extreme depths, working in dynamic environments ranging from the tropics to the Arctic ice.

Because of the size and complexity of each AUV/USV pair, the capital cost of the technology from Ocean Infinity would greatly exceed the capital cost of Virginia Tech’s technology, which uses small AUVs with innovative navigation systems. On the other hand, both approaches benefit from having a single host vessel supporting multiple underwater vehicles, which offers significant operating cost and scan rate improvements compared to the conventional towfish technology.

Ocean Infinity’s seabed exploration system is commercially available today, including underwater and surface vehicles, on-board support equipment, and the host vessel. This is an exciting possibility for conducting the search for MH370 in the near future.

I can now say that the “well-known ocean explorer” was David Mearns. At the time that I posted the article, I was not aware that Ocean Infinity had any interest in searching for MH370, although I was hoping they did. The prospect of exploiting Ocean Infinity’s technology in the near future is great news.

That means that Malaysia, Australia, and China need to make a decision: Either the tri-partite countries should provide funds to re-start the search; or, the countries should fully cooperate with Ocean Infinity and other qualified entities that are interested in re-starting the search. Any other action is unacceptable.

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