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Firm Helps Navy Dive for Missing Airliner

The search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight off the coast of Australia showcases the little-publicized yet important work of a U.S. Navy contractor.

Phoenix International Holdings Inc., a closely held company based in Largo, Md., is the company that operates the underwater drone, known as Bluefin-21, which is scanning floor of the Indian Ocean for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on behalf of the sea service.

The submersible, which is manufactured by another company called Bluefin Robotics, was recently featured on DefenseTech.org, a sister blog to DoDBuzz.com, as well as national media outlets such as CNN.

Phoenix International in 2010 received a contract potentially valued at $50 million to provide "worldwide diving and diving-related services to support the director of ocean engineering, supervisor of salvage and diving" for Naval Sea Systems Command, according to an announcement from the Defense Department.

That basically means the company does underwater search and recovery for the Navy, according to Peter LeHardy, who manages the firm's business development. While the agreement is primarily designed to help the service look for lost military aircraft, the work can also involve searching for missing civilian planes using any number of products, he said.

"Most of the time, it means operating the Navy's own equipment," LeHardy said in a telephone interview. "But sometimes the Navy asks us to bring other equipment to support whatever work is required. In this case, they asked us to bring the Phoenix-owned AUV to the scene to assist," he said, referring to the acronym for autonomous underwater vehicle.

The drone is known within the company as Artemis, the Greek mythological figure who was a hunter of the sea, LeHardy said. The numerical designation in Bluefin-21 refers to the 21-inch diameter of the 16-foot-long craft, which is capable of diving to depths of about 4,500 meters, or about 15,000 feet, he said.

Unlike a remotely piloted vehicle, which is tethered to a surface ship and operated by personnel aboard the vessel, an autonomous underwater vehicle is free to navigate three-dimensional routes pre-programmed into its on-board computer.

"It's swimming around autonomously based on guidance that's provided prior to the mission," LeHardy said.

The company also operates Navy-owned equipment, including robotic submarines such as Deep Drone 8000 and Curv-21, side-scan sonar systems and towed pinger locators, one of which detected acoustic signals, or pings, believed to be from the downed plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

Phoenix International has roughly 220 employees, nine of whom are in the field assisting with the search for the missing airliner, LeHardy said. At this stage of the operation, the company is mostly using the Bluefin drone, which he acknowledged has had some technical problems. At one point, for instance, it went deeper than its designed depth, triggering an automatic abort, he said.

The drone is being launched from the Australian ship Ocean Shield, part of an international search for the wreckage that includes 11 vessels and 10 military aircraft. While the autonomous vessel reportedly began its ninth mission for the operation on Monday with "no contacts of interest," LeHardy said the officials are "getting a lot of good data from the vehicle."

The search, now in its 45th day, may be at a critical juncture. The batteries that power the plane's black box probably died, as they're only designed to last about 30 days. Officials have narrowed the search area, but it's still some 500 square miles -- about the size of Los Angeles. What's more, bad weather threatens the delay the operation.

LeHardy noted that it took almost two years to recover the wreckage from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. "There's a desire on the part of everybody who's watching the story to know what happened," he said. "People should recognize the massive effort that's required to search this area and be prepared for it to take a while."

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