The Malaysian government yesterday struck a deal to pay United States-based seabed exploration firm Ocean Infinity up to US$70 million (S$93 million) if it finds the Malaysia Airlines MH370 aircraft within 90 days.
The search for the debris and flight data recorders will begin from the middle of this month, covering 25,000 sq km in the southern Indian Ocean within a 90-day timeframe, the Transport Ministry announced at a news conference.
Under the "no find, no fee" deal, Ocean Infinity will be paid US$20 million if it locates the debris or recorders within the first 5,000 sq km of the search area. The amount rises to US$30 million for the next 10,000 sq km, and US$50 million for the outermost 10,000 sq km.
The firm will be paid US$70 million if anything substantial is found beyond the stipulated search area.
The payment will be borne by the Malaysian government.
Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said payment would be made only if the Houston-based firm finds concrete evidence of the missing aircraft within the stipulated time, and it must be verified by Malaysian officials.
"Within these three months, they must complete a search area of 25,000 sq km. They should either locate the debris field, or flight recorder, or both... but it must be within a time frame," Datuk Seri Liow said at the signing ceremony.
He said there is an 85 per cent chance that the wreckage would be found within the new search area.
A$200m Cost of the earlier three-year hunt for the aircraft - the largest in aviation history.
Norwegian research vessel Seabed Constructor, leased by Ocean Infinity, has set off from South Africa and aims to arrive in the search area by Jan 17, chief executive Oliver Plunkett told reporters.
He said the vessel has eight autonomous underwater vehicles which can go as deep as 5,600m, deeper than the 4,000m limit of the underwater drones deployed in the search last year.
"We can roughly cover around 1,200 sq km per day. We will finish the 25,000 sq km in the first three to four weeks of the search," he said.
This means the vessel has another 60 days to look beyond the search area before the deadline.
"Scientists have done more work on the ocean's drift modelling after pieces of wreckage turned up on Reunion Island in Africa. That has allowed a revised assessment of where the right place to search is," he added.
Families of those onboard MH370 will be updated on the search via text messages, e-mail and website http://www.mh370.gov.my
Flight MH370 with 239 people on board disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014. Most of the passengers were Chinese nationals.
The plane is thought to have been diverted thousands of kilometres off course over the southern Indian Ocean, before crashing off the coast of Western Australia.
Several pieces of debris confirmed to have been from the aircraft have been found by members of the public on the African coast and islands in the Indian Ocean.
The previous search led by Australia covered over 120,000 sq km in the Indian Ocean. However, there were no signs of the aircraft.
In January last year, the governments of Malaysia, Australia and China called off the nearly three-year search. The hunt, which cost A$200 million, was the largest in aviation history.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's final report conceded that the authorities were no closer to knowing the reasons for the flight's disappearance, or its exact location.