PERTH: Search crews will for the first time send a robotic submarinedeep into the Indian Ocean on Monday to try to determine whether underwater signals detected by sound-locating equipment are from the missing Malaysian jet's black boxes, the leader of the search effort said.
The crew on board the Australian navy's Ocean Shield will launch the unmanned underwater vehicle on Monday evening, said Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search off Australia's west coast. The Bluefin 21 autonomous sub can create a three-dimensional sonar map of the area to chart any debris on the seafloor.
The move comes after crews picked up a series of underwater sounds over the past two weeks that were consistent with an aircraft's black boxes, which contain flight data and cockpit voice recordings. The devices have beacons that emit "pings" so they can be more easily found, but the beacons' batteries last only about a month, and it has been more than a month since the plane vanished.
"We haven't had a single detection in six days, so I guess it's time to go under water," Houston said.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised hopes last week when he said authorities were "very confident" the four underwater signals that have been detected are coming from the black boxes on Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
But Houston warned that while the signals are a promising lead, the public needs to be realistic about the challenges facing search crews, who are contending with an extremely remote, deep patch of ocean - an area he dubbed "new to man."
"I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the autonomous underwater vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not," Houston said. "However, this is the best lead we have, and it must be pursued vigorously. Again, I emphasize that this will be a slow and painstaking process."
The Ocean Shield has been dragging a US Navy device called a towed pinger locator through thewater to listen for any sounds from the black boxes' beacons. Over the past 10 days, theequipment has picked up four separate signals.
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