Famed American aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937, while attempting to fly around the world in a Lockheed Model 10E Electra. Now, a high-tech unmanned boat has been enlisted to help search for that plane, near an island where Earhart may have crash-landed.

All that's officially known about the disappearance of Earhart – along with her navigator, Fred Noonan – is that her last verified radio transmission was received while she was flying over the central Pacific Ocean. A number of subsequently-reported messages may or may not have come from her.

Based on those later transmissions, and on physical evidence such as human bones, many people now believe that after encountering mechanical difficulties, she successfully ditched her aircraft near the Southwestern Pacific island of Nikumaroro – there, she managed to live on for some time. And although the plane may have initially been sitting on a reef fairly close to the shore, it's possible that currents carried it out into deeper water over the decades.

Led by marine explorer Robert Ballard – the guy who found the wreck of the Titanic – a National Geographic expedition is now set to search for the aircraft in the waters around Nikumaroro.

The team members will be utilizing an autonomous surface vessel from the University of New Hampshire, known as BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator). Manufactured for the university by marine autonomy tech company ASV Global, the watercraft is equipped with technology including an Applanix POS/MV navigation system and a Kongsberg EM2040P multibeam echo-sounder, which allow it to create 3D topographic and acoustic backscatter maps of the seafloor.

Plans call for BEN to be used in areas where the water is too deep for divers, yet too shallow for safe navigation by the Exploration Vessel (EV) Nautilus, the ship in which the crew will be based. If anything promising does appear on any of the maps, remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) will be dispatched from the EV Nautilus to investigate.

Once completed, the mission will be the subject of a documentary that will air in October on the National Geographic Channel.

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