SYDNEY—The Dutch firm that Australia hired to relaunch the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has limited experience searching for wrecks on the ocean floor, but it does have the ability to run lengthy operations with rotating crews and multiple vessels at once--key requirements for the operation.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said Fugro FUR.AE +2.67% NV, one of the world's largest oil-and-gas servicing firms, won a 52 million Australian dollar (US$48.4 million) contract to lead the extensive undersea search of the southern Indian Ocean for the missing jetliner, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.
Fugro beat a number of other bidders for the contract, including Houston-based oil-and-gas services firm Oceaneering International Inc. OII +0.12% and specialist wreck salvage companies Odyssey Marine Explorations Inc. and Blue Water Recoveries.
The rebooted search for Flight 370 is scheduled to take up to 300 days and involve as many as four ships carrying deep-water sonar equipment, including two from Fugro.
The firm has a large existing operation in the Western Australia state capital of Perth, servicing customers in the resources sector such as Japan's Inpex Corp. and Total SA, which are building the US$34 billion Ichthys gas-export project. Perth has so far been the base of operations for the air and sea search to locate the missing plane, which has discovered only garbage floating on the ocean surface.
Fugro's regional managing director, Steve Duffield, will lead the hunt for Flight 370, according to company officials. Mr. Duffield is currently on leave and unavailable for comment.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which helped find the Titanic in deep waters off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985, will contribute two Remus 6000 autonomous underwater vehicles to the search if a debris field is found, said Donald Hussong, a veteran deep-sea sonar expert who was brought out of retirement to help Fugro manage its bid.
The delicate devices can take more accurate sonar and video images of the sea bottom, but move too slowly to be useful for the broader search. The same devices were responsible for finding Air France Flight 447 in the mid-Atlantic in 2011, two years after it crashed.
The team of experts hired by the Australian and Malaysian governments will face a difficult task. Initial low-resolution sonar scans of the search zone by vessels including the Chinese research ship Zhu Kezhen and the Fugro Equator over the past month have revealed that the 20,000-square miles of seabed contain patches of extremely difficult terrain including a subsea volcano.
"Unfortunately there are far more ridges and seamounts than had been supposed," Mr. Hussong told The Wall Street Journal. The difficult terrain will require using sonar equipment at a higher resolution to distinguish between plane wreckage and features like boulder fields and crevasses, possibly slowing the search, he said.
Mr. Hussong, who studied at Princeton before completing a doctorate in geophysics at the University of Hawaii, is a pioneer in deep-sea surveys to lay fiber-optic cables connecting Internet users around the world. He also helped to develop sonar survey drones for Fugro in conjunction with the Bluefin Robotics Corp., which built the Bluefin-21 vehicle used in the initial undersea search for Flight 370 by the Australian and U.S. navies in April and May.
Fugro has already ordered 20 kilometers of new cabling to help it tow sonar devices through the search area at depths of up to 3 miles, Mr. Hussong said.
Fugro plans to use two ships in the search, sending the first to the area in mid-September, with the second due to be deployed about a month later. "It's one of the least mapped areas in the world," Mr. Hussong said.
The company, which in the mid-20th century was focused on soil analysis and other on-land survey work, has become a major driver of undersea sonar and robotics development since the 1960s when its clients moved offshore to exploit oil and gas reserves.
"They go deeper and deeper, in harsher environments, and we follow," said Rob Luijnenburg, Fugro's director of corporate strategy, who is based at the company's headquarters in Leidschendam, Netherlands.
Since the 1960s, the company has become expert not only at ocean-floor mapping, but also at geolocation at sea—the science of knowing where ships are at any one time. "That's one of our strengths: integrating sonar with motion reference on board to get accurate maps," Mr. Luijnenburg said.
Fugro has built 120 reference stations around the world that help to process satellite-positioning data from companies such as Inmarsat PLC and the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System. These stations directly feed information to Fugro's ships.
Still, oil and gas companies typically only operate in water depths of up to 2 miles as part of routine business.
"Beyond that it's niche companies and science institutions," Mr. Luijnenburg said.
Fugro, which has 12,000 staff globally, doesn't own any ultra-deep sonar equipment, and has hired devices to use in the search.
As well as company employees, Fugro may also invite sonar technicians experienced in using deep-sea sonar equipment on board their search vessels. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau also has a right to observe the search. The crew will have to be rotated off the ships roughly every month to inject fresh energy in the search mission and keep morale high.
During the initial underwater search for Flight 370, the crew aboard Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield staved off boredom and fatigue by doing aerobics exercises on deck led by navy divers, swimming in the sea, and watching classic Australian films such as "Red Dog"—the feel-good tale of a lost Australian sheep dog.