Malaysia to pay up to $70 million if US seabed exploration firm finds MH370

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Malaysia signed a deal to pay a US seabed exploration firm up to $70 million (€58 million) on Wednesday, if it is able to find the missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft MH370 in a new search area in the Southern Indian Ocean.

MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. It is one of the world’s biggest aviation mysteries.

Read more: MH370 search team says wreckage could be out of current search zone

Australia, China and Malaysia ended an unsuccessful $157 million search of a 120,000-square-kilometer (46,300-square-mile) area in January last year, despite investigators urging the search be extended to a 25,000-square-kilometer area further to the north.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said a Houston-based private firm, Ocean Infinity, would search for MH370 in that 25,000-square-kilometer priority area on a “no-cure, no-fee” basis, meaning it will only get paid if it finds the plane. The search is expected to be completed within 90 days.

The priority of the search is to locate the wreckage and the so-called “black box” recorders — the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) — and present credible evidence to confirm their location, Liow said. “As we speak, the vessel, Seabed Constructor, is on her way to the search area, taking advantage of favorable weather conditions in the South Indian Ocean.”

Ocean Infinity Chief Executive Oliver Plunkett said the search operation will begin on January 17.

Read more: Australian agency uncovers new evidence in missing flight MH370

The vessel will have 65 crew, including two government representatives from Malaysia’s navy.

Plunkett said eight autonomous underwater vehicles, which are drones fitted with high-tech cameras, sonars and sensors, will be dispatched to map the seabed at a faster pace.

Together, the underwater drones can cover up to 1,200 square kilometers a day and should complete the 25,000 square kilometers within a month.

Finding MH370 ‘a realistic prospect’  

“We have a realistic prospect of finding it,” Plunkett said. “While there can be no guarantees of locating the aircraft, we believe our system of multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously is well suited to the task at hand.”

Read more: Australia confirms Mauritius debris belonged to MH370

Malaysia will pay Ocean Infinity on a sliding scale, with the finder’s fee rising incrementally based on how large a radius the company has to scour from its starting point, the largest possible reward being $70 million, Liow said. 

Read more: MH370 report: Missing plane mystery ‘unacceptable’

The MH370 debris could furnish clues to events on board before the aircraft crashed. There have been competing theories that it suffered mechanical failure or was intentionally flown off course. Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off the plane’s transponder before diverting it thousands of miles out over the Indian Ocean.

At least three pieces of aircraft debris collected from sites on Indian Ocean islands and along Africa’s east coast have been confirmed as being from MH370.

law/msh (AFP, Reuters)