. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nautical Robots Assist in TWA Probe

HAMPTON BAYS, New York -- It's a scene to rival Jules Verne: a high-tech fleet of nautical robots fitted with cameras, mechanical claws and lasers, sent into the depths of the Atlantic to solve a great mystery.

But the work is not fiction. An array of remote-controlled devices has been used to aid divers in recovering bodies and wreckage from the explosion of TWA Flight 800.

With the recovery effort nearing the end of its fourth week, the high-tech tools are playing a key role, Navy officials said.

The most sophisticated tool -- an experimental device called a laser-line scanner, or LLS -- recently completed a meticulous survey of an area where the first parts of the Paris-bound jumbo jet plunged into the ocean July 17.

The USS Grapple, one of two salvage vessels on the scene, used the survey to collect items that -- while widely scattered and mostly small -- could prove crucial to investigators trying to determine why the Boeing 747 exploded.

Developed during the Cold War by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, the LLS previously has been used to inspect underwater oil lines and archaeological sites.

The ungainly, box-shaped LLS projects a blue-green laser beam toward the bottom in 70-degree sweeps, somewhat like painting a wall. Unlike the shadowy images of ordinary sonar, it can deliver distinct images, even detailing rivets and serial numbers on metal plates.

The device also can identify "soft targets'' that often do not register on sonar. In the TWA search, the scanner found several bodies, including two that sonar missed, the Navy said.

Other devices probing the depths illuminate wreckage for divers and sometimes lift pieces with mechanical claws operated by remote control from the decks of the recovery fleet.

The Navy has scanned more than 182 square kilometers during the operation.

Within days after the jetliner exploded in flight, killing all 230 aboard, the Navy salvage effort included a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship carrying a side-scan sonar to map the ocean floor, remote-operated vehicles aboard the USS Grasp and the salvage vessel Pirouette, and the Deep Drone 7200 -- a powerful submersible that can dive to 2,100 meters and lift 1,440 kilograms while videotaping every move -- aboard the Grapple.