Underwater microphone hudrophone

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared on March 18 2014 over the Southern Indian Ocean. Until now, its fate is unknown despite years of dedicated searches of miles of sea.

But new technology developments, mean the next plane to disappear won’t take long before it is found.

A Cardiff University School of Engineering team has developed a technique to use underwater microphones to precisely identify the location and the time an object hits the surface of large water bodies.

Making waves

The method they developed relies on sound waves that can spread through the water at the sound speed. These waves naturally occur whenever something hit the surface of the sea, and some organisms such as plankton even depend on them to move around the ocean.

These signals can be detected by the specially-designed underwater microphones called hydrophones, and when it triangulate the signals it received at 3 or more different places, it is possible to find the real time and the exact position the signal originated.

Testing Process

When the team was testing it, they first dropped 18 balls into a water tank at different distances and heights and then measured the acoustic waves that were generated.

Then, they analyse the data collected by the newly developed hydrophones off the coast of Western Australia. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation operated the recorder and used them to detect underwater nuclear tests. With the data, they were able to detect the time and location of a section of recent earthquakes.

Usama Kadri from Cardiff University’s School of Mathematics said, “By using existing detectors dotted all around our oceans and listening out for signatures from these deep ocean sound waves, we’ve uncovered a completely novel way of locating objects impacting on the sea surface.”

“Tracking these acoustic gravity waves opens up a huge range of possibilities, from locating falling meteorites to detecting landslides, rogue waves, storm surges, tsunamis and snowslides.”

Weak Signals

The team went back to analyze the data from March 18 2014 – the night the MH370 disappeared. The team detected 2 remarkably weak signals between midnight at 02:00 UTC. This weak signals means there is a relatively large area of uncertainty.

Davide Crivelli from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering said, “Though we’ve located two points around the time of MH370’s disappearance from an unknown source, we cannot say with any real certainty that these have any association with the aircraft.”

“What we do know is that the hydrophones picked up remarkably weak signals at these locations and that the signals, according to our calculations, accounted for some sort of impact in the Indian Ocean. All of this information has been passed onto the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and we anticipate that both now, and in the future, this new source of information could be used in conjunction with a whole of host of other data that is at the disposal of the authorities.”

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