China has the technological know-how to recover the wreckage and black boxes of Flight 370 but logistical hurdles must be overcome before it can deploy vessels like its Jiaolong submersible, say Chinese scientists familiar with the matter.
The search effort for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is focusing on underwater signals detected in a patch of the Indian Ocean about 2,250 kilometres northwest of Perth, Australia. But the depth of the water there can exceed 4,500 metres. Any salvage operation must contend not only with strong currents and an absence of natural light, but also crushing pressure that only a handful of manned vessels in the world can withstand.
Sonar imaging devices aboard Chinese naval ships could scan the site and yield high-definition images that could aid salvage teams, said Professor Yang Yichun, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Noise and Vibration Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"I can't give anything specific on the highest resolution - that is classified - but our devices can find a section of sea cable at great depth, so 'seeing' the wreckage of a plane would not be a problem," Yang said.
"We would be able to clearly see windows, wings, the tail or other external features of the plane allowing us to determine the precise location. After analysing the sonar images, we can make a plan on how to approach the wreckage and retrieve the black box."
China can also send the submersible Jiaolong, or Sea Dragon, to assist in recovering the wreckage. Its operational limit is about 7,000 metres and it has used its robotic arm to retrieve samples at about half that depth, said Feng Dong, a researcher with the academy's Key Laboratory of Marginal Sea Geology.
Reaching the wreckage and recovering the black boxes would pose a challenge for the crew, Feng said, but it could be accomplished with enough planning.
Feng, who has been inside Jiaolong, said visibility was difficult at such depths, given the total lack of natural light, so the crew would need the plane's exact location. The Jiaolong can stay underwater for more than 10 hours but its battery power limits it to covering only a few kilometres of sea floor each dive.
Its robotic arm works much like a human one, allowing it to firmly grip objects, but its "fingers" were originally designed to manipulate natural objects such as mineral deposits.
The arm can be equipped with various tools to carry out different jobs, such as cutting, tearing, lifting, drilling or tying a knot for a rope. But the submersible could not carry large or heavy objects to the surface. Handling pieces of the wreckage might first require hardware changes.
"The crew might face many challenges because no one has done this before. Deep-sea work is a risky business that requires extra care," Feng said.
China could send a robotic submersible, but it did not have one equipped with a mechanical arm that was capable of operating at the required depths.
"We have one that can go beyond six kilometres, but without a robotic arm. It can only take photos or gather data," said a researcher with the academy's Shenyang Institute of Automation, who requested anonymity.
"Some Western countries such as the US and France are good at this kind of job, and they have valuable experience from the recovery of Air France Flight 447. China should join hands with other countries to recover the plane."
Flight 447 slammed into the ocean nearly four hours into its flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009. Some wreckage was found within days of the crash but the black boxes were only recovered from the sea floor at a depth of about 4,000 metres nearly two years later.
"Sending the Jiaolong hastily down there as a lone wolf would expose the crew to unnecessary risks," said the researcher with the automation institute.
Jiaolong and its mother ship, Xiang Yang Hong 9, are docked at the National Deep Sea Centre in Qingdao , Shandong , and waiting for orders to deploy.
An official with the centre's administrative office said he was not at liberty to reveal details on the crew's training or the submersible's status without central government authorisation. But the submersible would need preparation before any launch.
"The whole world's eyes are on us, creating a lot of pressure," he said. "But the job is delicate with many technological and political concerns. It will not be done in haste."