Some international deep-sea search experts have criticised the company in charge of the search for the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 for not using appropriate equipment and lacking experience.
Dutch Fugro NV was the surprise winner of the job last year, despite having comparatively less experience than some of the other bidders, the critics said. To support their opinion that Fugro may not have been the best for the job, they point out that in the almost twelve months since the search had commenced, not a single trace of the ill-fated jet-liner had been found.
“Fugro is a big company but they don't have any experience in this kind of search and it's really a very specialised job," said Paul-Henry Nargeolet, a former French naval officer who was hired by France's air accident investigation agency BEA to co-ordinate the search and recovery of Air France Flight AF447 in 2009.
"This is a big job," Nargeolet told Reuters. "I'm not an Australian taxpayer, but if I was, I would be very mad to see money being spent like that."
Some other industry insiders, including rival firms Williamson & Associated, French ixBlue SAS and Mauritius-based Deep Ocean Search, have backed Nargeolet’s concerns and even contacted Australia’s search authorities about the matter.
The firms said that due to the nature of the technology used, the wreckage might not be spotted by the sonar scanner unless it passes directly over the plane.
"I have serious concerns that the MH370 search operation may not be able to convincingly demonstrate that 100 per cent seafloor coverage is being achieved," said Mike Williamson, founder and president of Williamson & Associates.
The critics based their opinion on images and videos published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on its website. The images suggest, the experts said, that Fugro is operating its sonars beyond their optimum capabilities, acquiring lower quality of imagery than would be technically possible. Moreover, the sonars don’t cover the entire sea floor and leave gaps in coverage.
"It makes no sense to be using fine-scale tools to cover a massive area; it is like mowing an entire wheat field with a household lawnmower," said Rob McCallum, a vice-president at Williamson & Associates.
Two of the Fugro ships traverse up and down 2.4km-wide strips of the sea floor, pulling a towed scanner behind them suspended on a cable. The towed sonar floats about 100 metres above the sea floor, sending out sound waves diagonally across a swath, or broad strip, to produce a flattened image of the seabed.
The sonars used by Fugro have been developed by EdgeTech, an American company whose technology was previously used successfully in the search for the wreckage of Air France Flight 447.
The main problem, the critics said, is that while this type of scanner can provide very good results in flat landscape, it is far less reliable in such a rugged underwater terrain as that of the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have come down.
The experts also pointed to the limited amount of data regarding the operations of Fugro ships released by the ATSB.
Fugro deputy managing director Paul Kennedy attempted to dispel the concerns, saying that the firm’s sonar is running within its capabilities and had successfully identified five debris-like objects in 700-metre-deep water at a test range off the West Australian coast. "The test range gives us full confidence the sonars will see the debris field when we cross it," he said.
Concerning experts further is the fact that the third Fugro vessel, which was being used to scan the gaps between the other two ships with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), was this month taken out of action because of approaching wild winter weather.
That leaves the daily search without an AUV, a much more nimble piece of equipment that was vital in the successful search for AF447.
"We are continuously reviewing the search data as it comes in and we are satisfied that the coverage and detection standards we have specified are being met or exceeded," ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said in an email.
Fugro is known for its expertise in high-quality low-resolution mapping of sea floors but has far less experience than some of the rejected bidders in deepwater aircraft searches. It has been involved in 17 search and recovery efforts for aircraft or ships over 15 years, compared with some of the bidders who search for 4-5 aircraft every year.
Australia took over the search for the missing plane from Malaysia in late March last year, three weeks after the plane, carrying 239 people disappeared after veering off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search has since become the most expensive in the history of civil aviation.
Earlier this week, Australia said that another vessel operated by American firm Phoenix International Holdings, which found the black boxes of AF447 in 2011, will be withdrawn from the search.
Earlier this month, Australia announced the search area, determined by data from the last satellite communication with the aircraft, will be expanded to 120,000 square kilometres.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.