Underwater search for flight MH370 wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean will continue after the first round has failed but could take several months.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Monday that the US Bluefin 21 underwater drone will continue scanning the seabed in areas adjacent to the 10 square km stretch examined in the past weeks where authorities had believed the plane was located.
The failure of the Bluefin 21 to detect any signs of the lost plane was a major blow to the rescue teams who had been optimistic they had been looking in the right area after several signals consistent with those of the aircraft’s black boxes had been detected in early April.
"We are still baffled and disappointed that we haven't been able to find undersea wreckage based on those detections," Abbott told reporters.
Abbott said that the new search area, which spans 700 km by 80 km (435 miles by 40 miles), could take between six and eight months to completely examine, at a cost to Australia of as much as A$60 million (£33m).
The search operations have up until now been handled primarily as a military operation by the countries involved, but Abbott said that one or more commercial companies would be hired by Australia and Malaysia to handle the next phase.
Angus Houston, head of the Australian agency coordinating the search effort, offered a sobering assessment of the operation.
"We haven't found anything anywhere that has any connection to MH370," Houston said during the Abbott news conference.
The officials admitted it was possible that no evidence of the fate of the Malaysian plane that disappeared on 8 March 2014 with 239 people aboard would ever be found.
Teams searching for debris floating on the ocean surface failed to locate a single object related to the aircraft’s disappearance. Further surface search operations will be scaled down.
"We will do everything we humanly can, everything we reasonably can, to solve this mystery," Abbott said.
Malaysia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Britain and the United States are assisting Australia in conducting the most expensive search in aviation history.
It remains unclear what caused the Boeing 777 to veer sharply off its course and disappear from radar as it prepared to cross into Vietnamese airspace.
Malaysian authorities have still not ruled out mechanical problems, but say evidence suggests it was deliberately diverted from its scheduled route.
Malaysia is under pressure to bring closure to the grieving families by finding wreckage to determine definitively what happened to the aircraft. To this end, investigators are currently working to assess the credibility of a survey company's claim to have found possible plane wreckage in the Bay of Bengal, Malaysia's defence minister said today.
Hishammuddin Hussein said China and Australia are aware of the announcement by GeoResonance. The company stressed in a statement that a link to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is not certain, but it called for its findings to be investigated. GeoResonance typically uses remote sensing technology to look for undersea oil, gas and mineral deposits. It used the same technology to look for chemical elements present in aircraft, such as aluminium, titanium and jet fuel residue.
The location it identified is 118 miles south of Bangladesh, some distance from where the search has focused thus far.