Defence Science and Technology Organisation (Australia) and the search for MH370
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing on Saturday, 8 March 2014.
On 17 March, the Australian Government assumed responsibility for search operations in Australia’s search and rescue region. The Department of Defence (Australia) supported the Australian Maritime Safety Authority as the lead search and rescue agency.
The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), became involved in the search for MH370 from May 2014. The DSTO is 'multi-disciplinary', so Defence scientists were able to contribute in many technical areas including underwater acoustics, satellite communication systems and statistical data processing.
The Defence Science and Technology Organisation is part of Australia's Department of Defence. The DSTO is the second largest public-funded Research and Development organisation in Australia; one of Australia’s largest employers of scientists and engineers; works closely with industry, universities and the scientific community; is focussed on defence science and technology; and supports Australia’s defence and national security capabilities.
The DSTO is frequently called upon by civilian agencies to lend its unique expertise in crisis situations or to provide humanitarian assistance, and has supported the ATSB in refining search areas for MH370.
Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the search for MH370
The Defence Science and Technology Organisation Annual Review 2013-14 summarises the organisation's contribution to the search for MH370:-
DSTO is one of a number of agencies around the world contributing to the search for Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370. DSTO’s collective knowledge and experience in sonar technologies, satellite communications, target tracking and data fusion have proved to be invaluable in the search effort.
The expertise of DSTO scientists from three divisions was critical in establishing that signals detected from two acoustic searches were not related to the missing aircraft. Moreover, as part of the international working group assembled by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, DSTO’s ongoing analysis of the satellite communications data has been pivotal in continuing to refine the search zone.
The sparse and uncertain nature of the satellite data has presented many challenges for the team, requiring the continued development and refinement of mathematical models to determine plausible flight paths. Such is the complexity of the analysis, even the effect of the Earth’s shadow on the satellite had to be taken into account.
DSTO continues to work with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and the international working group to better understand the variability of the satellite data, research the trajectory prediction problem and more accurately refine the search area for the missing aircraft.
Source: Defence Science and Technology Organisation Annual Review 2013-14
The Search for Underwater Locator Beacons
The Boeing 777 registered 9M-MRO used by Malaysia Airlines for flight MH370 had an underwater locator beacon (ULB) attached to both the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) on board MH370. ULBs, also known as ‘pingers’, are battery operated acoustic transmitters which activate when immersed in water.
During the search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield deployed a towed pinger locator to detect the sonar ping from an underwater locator beacon (ULB) attached to the aircraft’s flight recorder (black box). Ocean Shield reported possible ULB detections (6 to 10 April 2014).
The Defence Science and Technology Organisation became involved in the search for MH370 when the Australian Transport Safety Bureau asked the DSTO to independently assess the acoustic signals recorded by the pinger locator:-
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau asked DSTO to independently assess the acoustic signals recorded by the pinger locator. Within 24 hours of receiving the data, DSTO advised that the signals did not appear to have originated from an aircraft underwater locator beacon on the seafloor. Subsequently, DSTO was also asked to review acoustic recordings available from the worldwide network of Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization seafloor hydrophone arrays. This analysis confirmed an earlier Curtin University assessment that the hydrophone array signals did not originate from MH370, either from its impact with the ocean surface or from a subsequent implosion of equipment on board the aircraft as it sank.
DSTO was then asked to join an international working group to independently reprocess Inmarsat data and provide a better estimate of the search zone. While the team was accustomed to coping with noisy and uncertain data, the problem required some particularly innovative thinking. The team developed and calibrated new statistical data-processing techniques to analyse the sparse satellite data and predict the flight path of the aircraft. Such was the sensitivity of the analysis that even the effect of the earth’s shadow on the satellite had to be taken into account. Results from the newly developed mathematical models influenced the choice of the future search area and formed a key component of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s public report released on 26 June.
Source: Excerpt from a feature article Defence involved in search for MH370, Department of Defence Annual Report 2013-14.
MH370 Flight Path Reconstruction Group
The MH370 Flight Path Reconstruction group was led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and comprised members from Inmarsat, Thales, Boeing, US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), and the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group.
Publications relevant to Flight MH370
- Bayesian Methods in the Search for MH370
- MH370 Burst Frequency Offset Analysis and Implications on Descent Rate at End-of-Flight
Expert analysis by the DSTO has been incorporated into a number of papers published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
Notes and References
- DST Website https://www.dst.defence.gov.au/
- DSTO Annual Review 2013-14 This publication covers the DSTO research highlights and activities for 2013-14 and is available at
- The Operational Search for MH370, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 3 October 2017 The acoustic search for the underwater locator beacons
- The Operational Search for MH370, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 3 October 2017 page 31
- Defence involved in search for MH370, Feature Article, Department of Defence Annual Report 2013-14,
- The book Bayesian Methods in the Search for MH370 can be downloaded from the ATSB website: https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx
- The article MH370 Burst Frequency Offset Analysis and Implications on Descent Rate at End-of-Flight, Ian D. Holland, Defence Science and Technology Group was first published in the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine 33 (2): pp. 24–33.. The publication is listed in the Defence Science and Technology Annual Review 2017-18