What happens when black box battery life ends and pings silenced

The search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is now into its 28th day, and in a matter of days, the mystery of what caused the plane's disappearance could be lost for ever.

The sound that searchers from around the world are desperately hoping to hear may be silenced due to the battery of the underwater locator beacon on the black box running out as it is supposed to after 30 to 45 days.

CNN has reported on what would be the options for search operations when there are no more pings to be heard from the beacon.

The only precedent for such an incident involving a commercial airliner with hundreds of passengers is the Air France Flight 447.

The aircraft disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, and searchers took five days before finding debris and the bodies of passengers. But the black box was not detected, even with the ping locators trawling the area where the debris was found.

It took two years before searchers finally found the black box with the flight voice and data recorder and the bulk of the wreckage using an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV.

According to CNN, searchers for flight MH370 could also use different types of AUVs, which are typically used in the oil and gas industry to conduct deepwater oilfield surveys.

So far, one of the most sophisticated AUVs owned by Phoenix International has been activated and flown to Perth, Australia, to help with the search.

It can be lowered 20,000 feet below the water surface and travels at speeds of 2 to 4.5 knots, and is able to create a map of the seafloor using sonar. It also has a still camera attached to provide real-time photos for the crew above water.

AUVs have not only played an instrumental role in finding the crashed Air France flight, it also found the plane wreckage of Italian fashion designer Vittorio Missoni off the coast of Venezuela and the HMS Ark Royal, a ship sunk by a German U-81 submarine in World War II.

CNN also reported that one of the Australian search ships has an underwater robot called the Bluefin-21, which can scour the ocean bed looking for signs of wreckage. However, the Australian authorities have stated that the Bluefin-21 would only be deployed if the searchers get a clear fix on the beacons sending out the pings.

On another note, even if the black box is found in the near or distant future, there are no guarantees that the mystery of why MAS flight MH370 went down will be revealed.

The voice recorders have only two hours of recording capacity. And since officials believe flight MH370 flew almost seven hours beyond the point where something went terribly wrong, some crucial cockpit sounds have almost certainly been erased, CNN reported.

However, the depletion of the battery will not wipe out data. Data has been known to survive years in harsh sea water conditions on modern flight recorders.

So, some answers could still be forthcoming, but only when the black box is found. – April 4, 2014.


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