Dutch engineering firm Fugro has signed a contract with Australia to lead the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The firm, whose reconnaissance vessel Equator has been surveying the topography of the seafloor of the search area since June alongside a Chinese ship, has been awarded $55m to carry out the next phase of the so far fruitless search, which is due to start next month and likely to last up to a year.
During that time, about 60,000 square km of the ocean floor some 1,600km west of Perth will be scoured with cutting edge technology.
In addition to Equator, Fugro will also deploy its Discovery vessel. Both ships are fitted with specialist deep tow survey systems including a side scan sonar, multi beam echo sounders and video cameras to map the seafloor, which is close to 5,000m deep in places.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the main coordinator of the search operations will oversee the efforts.
Australian Transport Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said Fugro was selected after "offering the best value-for-money technical solution" for the seafloor search.
"I remain cautiously optimistic that we will locate the missing aircraft within the priority search area," he told reporters in Canberra.
The search for the jetliner, which disappeared on 8 March this year with 239 passengers aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, has been going on for five months with multiple clues being pursued but all so far unsuccessfully.
In April, investigators believed they were close to finding the wreckage after a series of acoustic pings thought to be from the plane's black box recorders were heard near its last location shown by satellite data analysis.
However, after an unmanned submarine scanned the area of interest without spotting any sign of the plane, the search area was expanded again and moved further to the southwest.
Investigators say what little evidence they have to work with suggests the aeroplane was deliberately diverted thousands of kilometres before eventually crashing into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.
"We haven't completed the mapping, so we are still discovering detailed features that we had no knowledge of, underwater volcanoes and various other things," Martin Dolan, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Board, commented on the progress. "We are finding some surprises as we go through."
For the next stage of the search operations, Malaysia will provide four vessels and gear to aid seafloor mapping.
Although Australia has been footing the bill for the massively expensive search operation, the most costly in the history of aviation, Truss said he would ask Malaysia to share the costs. Australia has set aside up to A$90m ($83.66m) and estimates a 12-month search of the area will cost around A$52 million.
China, which had 153 nationals on board MH370, has been heavily involved, providing ships, aircraft and satellite technology. One Chinese vessel will stay in the search area until mid-September, but Truss said China had shown no sign that it would cover any of the commercial search costs.