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Missing Jet

Underwater Drones May Play Key Role in Malaysia Jet Search

It’s Day 6 in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and despite the extraordinary effort of international search teams, no answers have emerged.

Today White House Press Secretary Jay Carney revealed Malaysian authorities might expand the search zone to include parts of the Indian Ocean. "We're looking at information, pursuing possible leads, working within the investigation being led by the Malaysian government," he said, providing no further details.

Finding an aircraft underwater is complicated and requires specific technical expertise in currents, winds and ocean depths. David Gallo, chief of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, compares the work to searching for “bits of the needle” in a haystack.

“I like to think of it like a symphony orchestra," he said. "You’ve got to have the musicians, they have to have the instruments, we’ve got to have the music and then everybody’s got to be on the same page when the baton goes up.”

Gallo is the leader of a team that helped located Air France Flight 447, an aircraft that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. The Woods Hole team used the Remus 6000, a robot submarine -- akin to an underwater drone -- whose technology relies on sonar pulses to search the ocean floor.

This undated black and white photo provided April 4, 2011 by France's air accident investigation agency, the BEA, shows an engine of the flight AF447. All 228 people aboard the plane were killed when Flight 447, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, slammed into the ocean northeast of Brazil on June 1, 2009. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gallo and team are at the ready if they are called to help in the search for Malaysia Flight 370, but until they locate some type of debris field in the water, it’s simply too early.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that that plane ended up in the water,” Gallo said.

The scientists need to find what Gallo calls the “center of the haystack” before they can begin a search for the needle. And even then, it remains to be seen whether the search will be in deep or shallow water. Each requires a different set of equipment, and the process is slow and requires painstakingly meticulous work. It took Gallo and his team two years to find the fuselage and flight recorder of Air France’s crashed jetliner.

“Just like painting a wall or cutting grass, it can be really boring too. But it’s the only way to get the job done, to be sure that you’re giving yourself every opportunity to find the aircraft,” he said.


Tonight on "Nightly News with Brian Williams," Stephanie Gosk will have more on the high-tech equipment that could be called in to help search for Flight 370.