Amid fears that batteries of the crashed Malaysian plane's black boxes may have died, authorities today began to narrow the search area in the Indian Ocean to deploy an underwater drone to spot the debris.
Searchers hunting for Flight MH370 have so far failed to find any confirmed clues about the black boxes, as no new signals have been detected since last of the four other signals were heard on April 8.
"Up to 11 military aircraft, one civil aircraft and 14 ships will assist in today's search," the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) said in a statement, adding the centre of the search areas was set approximately 2,200 km north west of Perth.
China is also planning to deploy its indigenous deep sea manned submersible to locate the wreckage of the Boeing 777. This work continues in an effort to narrow the underwater search area for when the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is deployed, JACC said as the search for the missing jet entered into 37th day.
It said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had planned a visual search area, totalling 57,506 sq km compared to 41,393 sq km yesterday.
In an effort to narrow the underwater search area in which the autonomous underwater vehicle is deployed, JACC said the Australian defence vessel, Ocean Shield, continued more focused sweeps with the towed pinger locator to try and locate further signals related to the black boxes.
Last Wednesday, JACC chief coordinator Angus Houston said the autonomous underwater vehicle Bluefin-21 would be deployed once signals could no longer be detected. Finding the black boxes is crucial to know what happened on March 8 before the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines jet with 239 people, including five Indians, an Indo-Canadian and 154 Chinese nationals, mysteriously vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.
The batteries powering the black boxes are certified to be working for 30 days, but can still provide weak signals for some more days. Stored in a plane's tail, they are designed to begin sending off distinct, high-pitched signals as soon as they come in contact with water.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday said signals possibly from the black boxes of the ill-fated Malaysian jet were "rapidly fading" and the ongoing massive search for the plane was likely to continue "for a long time".
"Given that the signal from the black box is rapidly fading, what we are now doing is trying to get as many detections as we can so that we can narrow the search area down to as small an area as possible," Abbott said. "Yes we have very considerably narrowed down the search area but trying to locate anything 4.5 kilometres beneath the surface of the ocean about a thousand kilometres from land is a massive, massive task and it is likely to continue for a long time to come," he said.
China's vessels have been searching in an area of about 25,000 square km, which is in the western part of the search region designated by Australian authorities, said Zhuo Li, an official with the China Maritime Search and Rescue Center. In the eastern region of about 15,000 square km, vessels from other countries, including Australia, the UK, the US and Malaysia, have been in search, Zhuo added.
By midday today, the center had mobilised 63 merchant ships for assistance in the search, covering about 167,135 square km in total, he said. The mystery of the missing plane continued to baffle aviation and security authorities who have so far not succeeded in tracking the aircraft despite deploying hi-tech radar and other gadgets even after searching for 37 days.
Meanwhile, Malaysia today said it cannot provide any confirmation about reports that co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid made a desperate call from his mobile phone moments before the jet went off the radar.
"Unless we can have verifications, we can't comment on these reports," Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters here.
He said he did not want to speculate on "the realm of the police and other international agencies" probing the case. "I do not want to disrupt the investigations that are being done now not only by the Malaysian police but the FBI, MI6, Chinese intelligence and other intelligence agencies." Fariq and Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah have come under intense scrutiny after the plane mysteriously vanished.