Dutch engineering firm Fugro will lead the search of the sea floor where missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is believed to have crashed, hoping to unlock the greatest mystery in modern aviation.
Australia yesterday awarded Fugro the lead commercial contract for the Indian Ocean search, after months of hunting searches by up to two dozen countries revealed no trace of the missing Boeing 777.
The jetliner, carrying 239 passengers and crew bound for Beijing, disappeared on March 8 shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.
Investigators believe the aeroplane was deliberately diverted thousands of kilometres before eventually crashing into the ocean off the coast of Western Australia. The next phase of the search is expected to start within a month and take up to a year, focusing on a 60,000 sq km patch of ocean 1,600km west of Perth.
Australian Transport Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said Fugro was selected after "offering the best value-for-money technical solution" for the sea floor search.
"I remain cautiously optimistic that we will locate the missing aircraft within the priority search area," he said in Canberra.
Fugro will use two vessels equipped with towed deep-water vehicles carrying sonar, echo sounders and video cameras to scour the sea floor, which is close to 5,000 metres down in places.
The Dutch company is already conducting a detailed underwater mapping of the search area, along with the Chinese navy ship Zhu Kezhen.
"We haven't completed the mapping, so we are still discovering detailed features that we had no knowledge of, underwater volcanoes and various other things," said Martin Dolan, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Board, which is heading the search.
China, which had 153 nationals on board MH370, has been heavily involved, providing ships, aircraft and satellite technology. One Chinese vessel will stay in the search area until mid-September, but Truss said China had shown no sign that it would cover any of the commercial search costs.