A Dutch engineering firm has start exploration of the unmapped sea floor in the southern Indian Ocean where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is likely to have crashed, opening a new chapter in the so far fruitless hunt for the missing aircraft.
Operating large survey ships equipped with echo sounders, the engineers from Leidschendam-headquartered Frugo will first create a rather low-resolution topographic map of the terrain in depths of up to 6,000m before performing a more detailed survey attempting to locate the MH370 wreckage.
"It's extremely unlikely that we will be able to pick up something the size of an aircraft and make it out to be that at this stage," said Rob Luijnenburg, strategy director at Fugro, which usually conducts surveys for oil and telecommunications companies.
"It's a rough area. It has mountains, ridges, valleys, and you can't see a lot down there unless you make it visible with technology," he said. "For the first phase you need a good map. Once you have that you can plan the next phase."
The company foresees it will take up to three months to scan the area, larger in size than the Netherlands, some 1,600km east of the northwest coast of Australia.
The operation is supervised by the Australian Transportation Safety Board, the coordinator of the search operations.
Once an accurate map has been constructed with the aid of computers on board the ship, searchers can begin more detailed, slower surveys in a bid to find the wreck itself, using unmanned robots and submarines to search the ocean floor.
Flight MH370, carrying 239 crew and passengers, mostly Chinese, disappeared from radar screens on 8 March this year shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.
In a report published earlier this week it was revealed that loss of cabin pressure had likely occurred about the time the plane disappeared from radars, with the crew and passengers likely perishing as a result of hypoxia. The plane is believed to have flown on autopilot for several hours before coming down as it ran out of fuel.