Colloquium: February 2, 2016

Bayesian Search for Air France 447: The Math that Found a Needle in a Haystack

J. Van Gurley

Tuesday, February 2, 2016 at 2:00 P.M. in the Pearl Young Theater
(video within Langley firewall only)


In recent years there have been a number of highly publicized searches for missing aircraft such as Air France flight 447 and Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

Bayesian search theory provides a well-developed method for planning searches for missing aircraft, ships lost at sea, or people missing on land. The theory has been applied successfully to searches for the missing US nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, the SS Central America (1857 shipwreck), and the wreck of Air France flight 447. It is used routinely the by U. S. Coast Guard to find people and ships missing at sea. A crucial feature of Bayesian search theory is that it provides a principled method of combining all the available information about the location of a search object. This is particularly important in one-of-a-kind searches where there is little or no statistical data to rely upon.

This talk presents the basic elements of the theory and how it was used to locate the wreck of Air France flight 447 after two years of unsuccessful search. The talk finishes with a discussion of the current search for Malaysian Air flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, describing what is known and how the Bayesian approach could be used to guide search efforts.


Mr. Gurley is a Senior Manager at Metron, Incorporated, an applied mathematics and scientific consulting firm in Washington, DC. He leads a number of research and development efforts in predictive analytics, data fusion, and mission planning for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Office of Naval Research, and Federal Aviation Administration. Prior to joining Metron, he completed a 26 year career in the United States Navy rising to the rank of Captain while serving as a submarine warfare officer and naval meteorology and oceanography specialist. His active duty assignments included Military Deputy/Executive Assistant for the Oceanographer of the Navy and head of global operations for all Navy meteorology and oceanography activities. His education includes a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Florida, 1986, and Master of Science and Engineering degrees in Ocean Engineering awarded jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, 1992. In addition, he was the Navy’s 2003 Federal Executive Fellow with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies program.