‘Flying’ submarine prepares for its deep-sea launch

‘Flying’ submarine prepares for its deep-sea launch – new one-person submersible Deep Flight

Jerry Shine

A single-occupant submersible – featuring a medical new design that allows it to maneuver like a jet fighter – is being developed to explore the oceanic abyss.

Two hundred miles south of Guam, Lt. Donald Walsh and Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard climb down from a U.S. Navy destroyer into the Trieste, an oceanographic submersible being towed alongside. The entrance hatch is bolted shut behind them and, after two ballast tanks are flooded, the sub begins sinking beneath the surface.

Two hours later, they reach a depth of 32,000 feet. It’s still another hour before their fathometer begins picking up trace echoes from the seafloor. Finally, they touch down on the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench – 35,791 feet below sea level – the deepest pot on Earth, a place no human has ever been. Such depths remain untouched and unexplored by manned submersibles.

A feat of this magnitude would seem to be a recent milestone in oceanographic exploration. In fact the year was 1960. Yet, even today, no one has come close to duplicating Walsh and Piccard’s fantastic voyage.

The reason is simple: The high cost of building deep-diving manned submersibles has to be weighed against the importance of the disc made – a balancing act that doesn’t always come out in favor of the subs.

Although extremely expensive to build and operate, the Trieste was incapable of exploring the ocean floor or retrieving soil samples or aquatic specimens. Because of its shape and weight, it could not be stowed on the deck of a ship for easy transport and had to be towed from site to site. It could not take undersea photographs and visibility was limited by its 7-inch-thick Plexiglass portholes.

Since then, oceanographic submersibles have been designed to overcome the Trieste’s drawbacks, but their depth limit is only 20,000 feet. (The typical Navy sub is limited to a maximum depth of 2,000 feet.) Marine biologists were stunned when the research submersible Alvin discovered oases of strange sea creatures springing up around hydrothermal vents in waters as deep as 13,000 feet. The discoveries to be made almost three times deeper could be even more fantastic.

Of the deep-diving submersibles under development, the most innovative is Deep Flight, the brainchild of Graham Hawkes, a well-known designer of low-cost underwater vehicles and equipment. This new sub will challenge the same depths as the Trieste but circumvent its limitations.

The submersible is being developed in two phases. A prototype, called Deep Flight I, is slated for sea trials later this year. Although limited to a depth of 3,300 feet, it will aid in designing Deep Flight II, which will venture into the ocean’s deepest chasms. Construction on the latter should begin in 1996.

The Deep Flight submersibles are shaped like jets that will dive down to the depths on inverted wings, then swoop across the seafloor. Deep Flight I is 12 feet long, has an 8-foot wingspan and weighs 3,500 lbs. Although equipped with standard electric motors, its design will allow it to descend, or ascend, at a speed of 650 feet per minute (over 6 knots). At that rate, it could reach a depth of 35,000 feet in roughly an hour. Deep Flight II is expected to maintain essentially the same shape and dimensions but its speed capability will be raised to 14 knots, even as its weight may reach 9,000 lbs.

Deep Flight will be manned by a single human pilot; an onboard computer will serve as a copilot and monitor the vessel’s instruments. All information will be shown on a tiny display on the nose cone. The display, visible through a simple magnifier positioned over one of the pilot’s eyes, could be under 1 square inch and still be easy to read.

The entire front end of the sub is a transparent acrylic nose cone providing a panoramic view and eliminating feelings of claustrophobia. All controls are placed where the pilot’s hands would naturally fall, making for a comfortable ride no matter what tasks are being carried out. The life-support system uses oxygen tanks and soda-lime absorbents that remove car bon dioxide from the air, sustaining life for up to 12 hours. Because of cold temperatures at such extreme depths, the vessel’s hull material provides considerable insulation.

To supply its onboard equipment, Deep Flight will rely on lead-acid batteries that provide about eight hours of power. The vessel also is outfitted with several cameras pointing in various directions to photograph anything within range of its lights. The cameras are housed in the submersible’s hull to protect them from abyssal pressure.

The projected cost of building Deep Flight II is under $10 million, making it much more economical than other manned subs. In addition, as it win operate with little reliance on surface support ships, its operating costs will drop even further below those of other submersibles.

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