A Houston company is negotiating to conduct a private search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, after three governments failed in a three-year, $160 million effort.
The Boeing 777-200ER is presumed to have crashed after it went missing March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard, during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation said Friday that it is weighing several private offers to search for the plane, including one from Ocean Infinity, a Houston firm that surveys the ocean floor.
Ocean Infinity offered to search without payment unless the plane was found, but the offer is still being assessed and no agreement has been reached yet, according to the statement from Azharudden Abdul Rahman, the department's director general.
Ocean Infinity's spokesman didn't immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
The negotiations are somewhat confusing. Australia Transport Minister Darren Chester said Thursday that an agreement had been "accepted" between Malaysia and Ocean Infinity, but his confirmation was later contradicted by Rahman.
"While I am hopeful of a successful search, I'm conscious of not raising hopes for the loved ones of those on board," Chester said in a statement. "Ocean Infinity will focus on searching the seafloor in an area that has previously been identified by experts as the next most likely location to find MH370. Australia, at Malaysia's request, will provide technical assistance to the Malaysian Government and Ocean Infinity."
If an agreement is reached, Malaysia said it would notify Australia and China first, then the families of the missing. The families have urged the governments repeatedly to continue the search, after it was called off in January.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau led the search for the plane with Malaysia and China. Based on clues from satellite data, the search focused on a section of ocean floor the size of Pennsylvania, about 1,000 miles west of Perth.
In the years since, at least 18 pieces of the plane washed up on islands and parts of Africa. But after painstakingly mapping the ocean floor, towed sonar vessels hired by the governments found no trace of the main wreckage.
The governments have acknowledged that a more promising area to search might be north of the previous search zone, in an area about the size of Vermont.
Ocean Infinity could provide an advantage to a private search by deploying six autonomous underwater vehicles to scan the ocean floor nearly 20,000 feet deep.
The governments towed sonar vehicles on cables behind ships, which was difficult in bad weather or around mountainous underwater terrain.
The autonomous vehicles travel up to 7 mph, which is about twice as fast as towed sonar, and they are more maneuverable, said Al Diehl, a former crash investigator for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
"It's more flexible," said Diehl, who suggested two years ago that the search should include autonomous vehicles. "This is kind of interesting."