Deep-sea autonomous vessels boost the search for missing Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan
February 12, 2019

It is great news that M/V Seabed Constructorcommenced the latest search for the lost Argentine submarine ARA San Juan in the South Atlantic Ocean some 300 nautical miles east of Commodoro Rivadavia on Monday last week. Seabed Constructoris a multi-purpose offshore construction vessel operated by Swire Seabed and chartered by Ocean Infinity(OI), the ocean technology company appointed by the Argentine Government in August 2018. The 60-strong OI and Swire Seabedteam is hosting three Armada Argentina officers and four San Juan families’ representatives as observers of the search operation.

Seabed Constructor is deploying five of OI’s leading edge autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) capable of operating from shallow waters down to 6,000 metres in the world’s deepest oceans. Equipped with multi-beam and side scan sonars, an HD camera, a magnetometer and a range of other sensors, the AUVs are tasked for autonomous operations in the deep seabed canyons and rivers that border the Argentine continental shelf.  The detailed research and planning for the search area were conducted by OI’s highly experienced hydrographic and ocean robotics in conjunction with officers from the Armada Argentina, and expertise from Sherrell Ocean Services, ThayerMahan Incand NLA International Limited.

ARA San Juan was the second of two TR-1700 class submarines, a bespoke design built by Thyssen Nordseewerke, Germany, specifically for Argentina. She experienced battery and propulsion difficulties whilst operating to the south and west of her home base in Mar del Plata on 14 and 15 November 2017, and it is assessed that she was lost with all hands due to an implosion on passing crush depth on the forenoon of 15 November. The immediate search and rescue operation was followed by additional multi-national searches and surveys in the following weeks and months to no avail.  The actual cause of the loss is unknown; some circumstances preceding the event are known from which various theories have been compared with similar submarine losses including the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher.

NLA International, the Blue Economy solutions company, is supporting the OI survey and search planning process, liaising with Armada Argentina officers and experts and providing specialist advice on naval and submarine operations. We are indebted to the support of numerous agencies including the UK’s Defence Attaché to Buenos Aires, the Royal Navy’s Submarine Parachute Group, the US Navy, and experts at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation and the UK National Data Centre.

The thoughts and best wishes of the NLA International team are with all involved in the operation over the coming weeks, especially the families of the ARA San Juan and the Armada Argentina, and we echo the words of Oliver Plunkett, CEO of OI:

“For the sake of all involved in this tragedy, we hope that we can help locate the submarine.  As ever, there can be no guarantee of success as the exact location is unknown as are the circumstances surrounding her loss.”


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