When most people think of Houston, TX, a few things consistently come to mind: oil and gas, rodeo, NASA, football, leading subsea search and exploration technology,barbec…wait, rewind…what? That’s right. A city historically famous for being the long-time home of NASA and a world leader in space travel and exploration technology, also happens to be home to a company helping to lead the way in subsea search and exploration technology, the complete opposite direction of their astral counterparts.
Most Houstonians are probably unaware, that nestled on a stretch of Hillcroft near the Southwest Freeway is one of the most famous subsea technology companies in the world. A multinational firm, Fugro, with 10,500 employees spread out over a vast network of 174 offices and facilities in 50 countries, has called Houston home for over 25 years. Why the “famous” tag though? Well, in 2014, Fugro was awarded the commercial contract by the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) to help crack one of aviation’s greatest unanswered mysteries: How did MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT 370, a Boeing 777 carrying 239 people, vanish without a trace, in today’s modern age of cutting-edge surveillance and technology? Fugro, it was decided, was up to the task of answering that question, having achieved the highest technical score along with compliance on all requirements of the ATSB’s tender.
Whereas most of their fellow project bidders specialized in deep ocean wreckage search-and-recovery, Fugro’s strengths historically centered on geotechnical services such as underwater mapping for offshore oil and gas clients.
The search for MH370 was the largest such undertaking in history, consisting of not only an impressive array of cutting-edge technology, but also a large team of hardworking and dedicated people with targeted areas of expertise and experience, all working jointly to hopefully, ultimately, provide closure in locating the missing airline.
Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, Fugro mobilized four vessels over the course of the survey and search operations, two deep tow sonar systems and one autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) with over a hundred experienced staff to carry out the largest ultra-deep survey ever undertaken, in intensely challenging conditions.
The deep tow sonar vehicles on the Fugro Discovery and Fugro Equator vessels were equipped with sonar, multibeam echosounders and HD video cameras used to scour the seafloor at an astounding depth of 19,600 feet. Additionally, the use of hydrocarbon sensors enabled the detection of minute quantities of fuel in the water.
The deep tow sonar vehicles would collect the data that was then transferred via 10,000 meter-long fibre optic towcables to the vessel’s instrument room, where it was then assimilated to produce an image of the seafloor. All data was reviewed,logged, backed up and and streamed back to the Australian Government in near real time to enable them to stay constantly informed.
On January 2017, despite a monumental effort in terms of manpower, horsepower and brainpower, MH370 remained undiscovered.
Fugro President Edward J. Saade, on the results and impact of the search efforts: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the passengers and crew, and all of those involved over the loss of flight MH370. During the course of this search project lasting over three years of continuous operations, a talented, committed and dedicated team has done everything possible, combining Fugro’s cutting-edge technology with the best science and expertise available. We strive to continue advancing the expertise of search and recovery through technological innovation.”
Despite the outcome of the search, Fugro has had other successes, including but not limited to recently being honored with an Environmental Leadership Award from The Maritime Alliance for its work on a project identifying and mapping oil seepage from abandoned offshore well sites in Santa Barbara County. Additionally, Fugro successfully brought closure to the mystery behind Australia’s lost HMAS AE1 submarine more than 100 years after it disappeared off Papua New Guinea during the First World War. In a news release on December 22, 2017, Fugro explained how the company deployed its AUV in water over 300 meters deep from the Fugro Equator survey vessel, which was one of the vessels used during the MH370 search. The company located the missing submarine on the seafloor on December 19.
On the surface, the MH370 story displayed the way in which deep sea exploration and technological ingenuity were utilized to search for a missing plane. The true story, however, continues to be written by the 239 lost passengers, their family and friends and the millions around the globe yearning for answers. All of the extraordinary efforts were made possible by the heartbeat of the project – an impressive team of dedicated individuals, comprised of 20 different nationalities, combining for nearly 1 million man hours, covering a search area of almost 50,000 square miles, all working tirelessly towards a common goal. All of this, orchestrated from their offices, right here in Houston, TX. Who knew?