Using a fleet of three autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has located the wreckage of an Air France plane that crashed two years ago.
Flight 447, a commercial airliner flying between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, crashed into the ocean on 1 June, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board.
The unmanned Remus 6000 AUVs found the remains 3,900 metres — or nearly 2.5 miles — below the surface of the ocean, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said in a statement on Monday.
The search, which targeted an area of about 3,900 square miles off the north-eastern coast of Brazil, was carried out on behalf of the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses (BEA), the French Bureau of investigation and analysis for civil aviation safety. It was the fourth search since the plane crashed.
The team arrived at the crash site on 25 March and searched for one week with a Remus 6000 before discovering debris on the ocean bed. They then called in a second Remus 6000 for more detailed imaging and mapping.
The remote-controlled AUVs can be equipped with a range of sensors, such as a side scan sonar system and down-facing cameras for scouring the sea floor. An 11KW h rechargeable battery provides the Remus 6000 with 22 hours of usage at speeds of up to four knots.
The AUVs can explore as deep as 6,000 metres below the surface of the water. In the past, the Remus system has been used to scour the ocean floor for the wreck of the Titanic.
The AUV's side-scan sonar system is useful in creating images of large areas of the sea floor. The image above shows the wreckage of flight 447 as it appeared on the Remus side-scan sonar imaging equipment.
"We were confident from phase three [the previous search attempt] that if we were searching in the right area, the vehicles' sonar could pick out the aircraft," David Gallo, the project leader at WHOI, said in the statement.
Images taken during the search were relayed to the French air safety bureau, which confirmed that it was the wreckage of flight 447.
The image above shows one of the engines from the Air France A330 Airbus, as photographed by a Remus 6000 AUV in March.
Above, the landing gear from flight 447 found in the ocean, as pictured by the Remus 6000.
WHOI said that images taken included photos of the fuselage, engine and landing gear, as well as the sonar image of the wreckage.
Two of the Remus 6000 vehicles are owned by the Waitt Institute for Discovery (pictured). The third, also brought in for the search, belongs to the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences of Germany.
Members of the team controlling the Remus AUVs are pictured above, from left to right: Stephen Murphy, Mark Dennett and Robin Littlefield.
Investigators plan to examine the wreckage in detail and to continue to search for the plane's flight recorders.