Missing MH370 Search: Eight Submarine Drones Set to Scour Ocean Floor to Help Solve Mystery

Texas-based exploration firm Ocean Infinity chartered a Norwegian research vessel and equipped it with eight submarine drones. Ocean Infinity

A Norwegian research vessel carrying eight submarine drones departed South Africa's port of Durban to attempt to solve one of aviation's greatest mysteries, the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

Texas-based exploration firm Ocean Infinity chartered the ship and equipped it with eight submarine drones as it expects to finalize a deal with the Malaysian government to resume the search, which was suspended last January after racking up a record $160 million in costs over nearly three years.

The Boeing 777 disappeared on March 8, 2014, carrying 239 people from Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur to China's capital, Beijing. The passengers represented 14 nationalities, but more than half were Chinese.

In August, a report by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization identified three locations off the coast of Western Australia as possible crash site, north of the former search zone and less than a third of its size.

And that is where the ship is heading to start the new search over 25,000 square kilometres of sea floor, as The Economist reported last week, once Malaysia approves the deal.

"Ocean Infinity is hopeful of receiving the final contract award for the resumption of the search for MH370 over the coming days. We are moving the vessel, Seabed Constructor, towards the vicinity of the possible search zone," a spokesman for the company told Newsweek in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

The ship is expected to arrive at the designated location by mid-January to take advantage of a period of good weather. "This is designed to save time should the contract award be forthcoming, as hoped," the statement added, "We will confirm as and when the contract is awarded and the search can resume."

Ocean Infinity says its autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) can reach depths of about 20,000 feet and have an approximate endurance of 48 hours. The previous search for the plane wreck, undertaken by Dutch firm Fugro, used only one submarine drone, which could not dive further than 13,000 feet.

Malaysia's deputy transport minister Aziz Kaprawi confirmed the decision is forthcoming. "We are in the final stages of the decision. On our part, we have yet to finalize the agreement," he told Reuters.

Aziz said it would be up to Malaysia to make the call, without elaborating on whether Australia and China, who had been involved in the previous search, would be consulted about the contract. "Basically, Malaysia will make the decision, as this offer was made to the Malaysian government. The cost will also be decided by Malaysia," he said.

The deal is expected to be arranged on a no-find, no-fee basis, meaning Malaysia will only pay if the MH370 is found. "I am going to make an announcement next week after we finalize the contract with them," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters, quoted in Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua on Wednesday.

Underwater searches for the plane wreck and debris have so far been inconclusive. The only three confirmed pieces of plane debris were found on beaches in the island country Mauritius, the French island Reunion and an island off the coast of Tanzania.

More than 20 fragments suspected to have come from the plane where found at those locations as well as on the shore in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.