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Stellar groups jostle for MH370 search contract

Malaysiakini  |  Published:  |  Modified:

MH370 A mixed bag of oil-and-gas companies, maritime research institutes, treasure hunters and math wizards are among the groups jostling for the contract to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370, according to the Wall Street Journal .

It said at least eight outfits are vying for a role in the search through Australia’s tender process, mostly bidding as part of a larger consortium because they lack the resources to tackle the project alone.


The firms are barred by a non-disclosure agreement from announcing their bids, the report on Friday said, but among them are the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) that found Air France Flight 447 in 2011 - two years after it had crashed into the Atlantic.


Also bidding is the scientific consulting firm Metron, which provided mathematical analysis that aided WHOI in the discovery of AF447’s wreckage, and the oil services firm Oceaneering International Inc that helped find cruise ship Titanic’s wreckage in 1985.


Meanwhile, WSJ said the Dutch oil-and-gas consultancy Fugro NV has brought a top sonar expert out of retirement to help with the search.


As for the treasure hunters in the running, WSJ said there are Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc that had discovered and salvaged US$500 million (RM1.6 million) in gold and silver coins in 2007, and Williamson & Associates that had found a shipwreck in 1988 that was carrying US$760 million (RM2.4 billion) in gold, some of which have since been recovered.


Both hauls by the two companies were each from separate 19th century shipwrecks - the Spanish Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and the United States’ SS Central America.


Another big name is Blue Water Recoveries Ltd, a UK company that holds a Guinness World Record for finding the deepest shipwreck ever discovered, at 5,762 metres.


For comparison, the search for MH370 thus far rarely involved waters deeper than 4,500 metres, while the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) specifications for the upcoming round of search efforts have called for equipment that can search up to 6,000 metres deep.


Search to begin September

The winning bidder would have 12 months to search 60,000 square kilometres of deep sea - about half the size of Sarawak or three times the size of Perak. It is slated to begin in September.


“It is definitely the search of my generation,” Metron senior analyst Colleen Keller was quoted as saying by the report.


MH370 was carrying 239 persons on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, when it mysteriously cut communications and changed course just as it crossed from Malaysian airspace to Vietnam's.

The probe into the reasons for the change of course and its eventual disappearance has uncovered not a single clue.


Based on calculations, MH370 is now believed to be in the bottom of the south Indian Ocean, in an area of international waters that is poorly mapped and has little maritime traffic, but is within Australia’s search and rescue region delineated by international treaties.


A Chinese military vessel and a vessel that Australia had contracted from Fugro are currently mapping the seafloor in the search area to lay groundwork for the search in September, while the Royal Malaysian Navy hydrographic vessel KD Mutiara is due to depart on Monday to join the effort.


In the meantime, ATSB chief Martin Dolan will be spending weeks sifting through the bids with the help of five bureaucrats, the WSJ reports.


It said that Dolan could choose one or more bidder and the bidding rules allow him to consider more than just the lowest bidder. The choice will be difficult.


“Among the hardest (decision): whether to bet heavily on companies like Williamson & Associates, which specializes in using relatively simple towed sonars, or outfits like Woods Hole that have their own higher-tech autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs.


“A wrong choice could reduce the search's odds of success,” the report said, while explaining at length some of the pros and cons of each technology.


“The decision, fortunately or unfortunately, in the end rests with me,” Dolan was quoted as saying.


He has a budget of AU$60 million (RM180 million) for the search, which will be split between the Malaysian and Australian governments at proportions that has yet to be determined, the WSJ said.

Most searched seabed in history


Previously, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had announced that Petronas and Deftech, will be deploying one vessel with a towed sonar for the search, while Boustead Heavy Industries and iXBlue Australia will be deploying another vessel with a towed sonar plus a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).


The announcement on July 6 said that these two vessels are expected to reach the search area in mid-August.


These will be in addition to the Australian government-contracted assets, to be coordinated by the Canberra-based Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC).


Dolan said if the entire 60,000 square kilometre of the search area ends up being searched by the end of the operation, it would be the most extensively probed patch of ocean in the world.


“Scientists will know every boulder and divot that dots its surface. Whether that includes Flight 370 remains to be seen,” the WSJ report concludes.

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