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Special Report: Extreme Fabricating

Into the abyss

By Nick Wright

Above: Jean-Michel Cousteau, first son of famed diver Jacques Cousteau, piloted the Exosuit during its first test dive. Photo: Neil McDaniel

The tech-laden aluminum Exosuit takes divers to a 2,000-year-old Greek shipwreck

November 2014 - Earlier this year, NASA resurfaced in the news when it announced its next-generation spacesuit, the Z-2, was in the works. It’s in the prototype phase, but the design takes root in NASA’s goal to eventually put a man on Mars. However, there’s been another protective suit making headlines—exploring not the vast unknown up in space, but the one down here on Earth. 

The Exosuit Atmospheric Diving System (ADS) is a hard aluminum dive suit designed to let divers plumb depths up to 1,000 ft. It’s a more refined version of what you might imagine when you think of hard diving apparatuses, like the heavy metal helmets tethered by an air hose, with a porthole for viewing. The Exosuit remains at one atmosphere inside—the same pressure that we’re at right now—and remains at one atmosphere during the entire dive, regardless of the tremendous outside water pressure. 

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Manufactured by Nuytco Research Ltd., based in North Vancouver, British Columbia, the Exosuit is being used by researchers exploring the Antikythera shipwreck, located in the Mediterranean Sea off the Greek island of the same name. More than 2,000 years old and about 400 ft. below sea level, the wreck produced the Antikythera Mechanism, its most famous bronze artifact recovered in 1900 and thought to be the world’s oldest geared computing device for tracking astronomical activity such as eclipses. But it wasn’t until decades later that researchers figured out how it worked. Now, as divers return to the site to gather more artifacts, the Exosuit lets divers explore the sea floor for hours at a time without enduring a decompression cycle when they head back up. It’s not the first diving suit of its kind, but certainly the most advanced.

Aluminum armor

Phil Nuytten is the man behind Nuytco, which manufactures submersible technology of all types: suits, manned craft, thrust equipment and sonar, to name a few. The Exosuit is the latest generation of an atmospheric suit called the Newtsuit (a pun on his last name and the aquatic salamander), which Nuytten says he patented in 1985. About 100 of those have been built.

“We sold a large number of Newtsuits to various navies worldwide, and to marine construction companies and offshore oil companies,” he says. But Nuytco has built only four Exosuits, with five more on order. “We anticipate that Exosuit sales will equal or exceed the Newtsuit orders over the next couple of years. The Exosuit is simply the Newtsuit radically upgraded after nearly 30 years in the field.”

The current incarnation of the suit is the result of years of identifying minor flaws in the original design, giving the company a chance to improve it and add new features.

The suit torso and limb spacers are fabricated from cast aluminum, which is then CNC machined. The castings are made by the Pacific Mako Foundry in Langley, British Columbia. Plate aluminum makes up the rotary joints as well as the waist spacer rings, leg and arm length adjusters. It’s all 6061T aluminum, including about 200 lbs. of plate. The cast torso parts of the suit are a nominal 3⁄8 in. thick with 11⁄2 in. by 11⁄2 in. reinforcing ribs cast in at various areas of high stress. Aluminum plate is waterjet cut and used for waist rings (to lengthen the suit for taller pilots) and for the rotary joint fabrication. Its total weight ranges from 500 to 600 lbs., depending on the desired configuration, says Nuytten. Aluminum is an ideal material—easy to machine, plus lighter and more corrosion resistant than steel. 

Nor is aluminum new to atmospheric diving suits—in fact, inventor Chester E. Macduffee patented an ADS in 1911 that was comprised of aluminum alloy and also weighed over 500 lbs. The suit included an arm-mounted gripper and an electric light, but was not watertight, necessitating a water pump.

Contained within the Exosuit is an impressive array of technology. It has an oxygen system and backup system, a 50-hour carbon dioxide scrubber, backup power and lung-powered backup scrubber. Gigabit ethernet over fiber optic—better than what’s found in most homes—connects the suit via the umbilical, with operators on the surface to relay telemetry data. A display inside the head of the upper torso lets the pilot monitor all the vitals: life support system, thruster power, video, lighting and more. The suit doesn’t allow for divers to use their own hands, but they have the next best thing. The Exosuit features a mechanical gripper operated from inside by a hand pod. The parallel-jawed gripper works well, but is soon to be replaced by the Prehensor: a five-fingered hand that externally mimics the pilot’s exact hand movements inside the pod. The Prehensor is in the final stages of development and will retro-fit existing Exosuits. 

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Pressure points

When sponge divers happened upon the Antikythera wreck in 1900, they uncovered a trove of Greek and Roman artifacts made from bronze and marble, coins, jewelry and the famed calculating device. Despite using copper helmet headgear, which permitted dive times of a few minutes, the risks to those divers were high. According to Nuytten, during those first deep salvage dives, one diver died from decompression sickness (known as the bends) and others endured paralysis. Famed oceanographer and diving innovator Jacques Cousteau investigated the wreck in the 1950s and the 1970s. At the time, technology had doubled breathing capacity from the dives of 50 years prior, but still not nearly long enough for constructive exploration. Today, the Exosuit lets divers stay underwater for a maximum of 50 hours, although a few hours per dive is expected practice. In addition to the ability to take extended dives, the suit also eliminates the time a diver spends decompressing. For example, a saturation diver would need more than a week of decompression after rising from the Exosuit’s rated depth, according to Erik Seedhouse in his book “Ocean Outpost: The Future of Humans Living Underwater.” 

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Nuytco’s manufacturing shop, where the Exosuit comes together, has Bridgeport style mills, engine lathes and other metal cutting equipment. “Virtually all of the complex machining that requires CNC capability we farm out to several local machine shops with 5-axis systems,” Nuytten says. “All of the critical parts—the internal mechanism of the rotary joints and the life-support system—we do in-house.”

The rotary joints that allow the suit to flex its arms and legs are based on a passive hydraulic bearing and seal system that Nuytco developed and patented. As advanced as that sounds, Nuytten says the biggest challenge associated with building the Exosuit wasn’t related to schematics, rather, keeping its price down. 

Nuytten calls it a Catch-22 situation. “We believed that we could increase the volume of sales if we could bring the price down, but we needed to have the sales volume” before he could do that. “So we bit the bullet and ordered a large volume of castings and machined parts on spec. Fortunately, our order book has justified that gamble.”

The Exosuit sells for just under $700,000 USD. That’s the price for the standard thruster-powered suit including surface consoles, remote control capability (it can be piloted from the surface without a diver inside) and hardwire communications.

FFJ-1114-extreme-image3J.F. White Contracting Co., Framingham, Massachusetts, owns the Exosuit used at the Antikythera wreck. The company specializes in heavy engineering projects that sometimes involve deep diving foundations. The Exosuit officially entered the sea on Oct. 7 after being hampered by harsh sea conditions. Scientific American, which has been covering the dive daily, reported that this was the suit’s first time in salt water. The first diver, Edward O’Brien of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the experience wasn’t anything like scuba diving. “You don’t have any sense of pressure or depth. Fifty ft. feels the same as 200 ft., except maybe it’s darker at 200,” he told SA. Although the suit weighs more than 500 lbs., it becomes virtually weightless once lowered into the water by a crane.

Beyond the ocean

The Exosuit has been a long time coming, and the Antikythera dive is the perfect proving ground for such a suit. Nuytten says he began working on the Exosuit in 1997. “We were busy building small work-class submersibles called ‘DeepWorkers’ and had to work on the Exosuit design between sub orders, so it took a long time!” One of the first divers to test the suit was Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of famed Jacques Cousteau. However, it was in a diving tank near Vancouver in 2013 as the suit wasn’t yet certified for open water.

Before the suit was deployed to Greece, J.F. White Contracting used an earlier version of the suit in 2012 and 2013 to perform extensive repair work to the 18 ft. diameter tunnels that bring water from the Niagara River and other sources to New York City.

“The result of the use of the atmospheric diving suits was so impressive and cost effective that J.F. White bought two suits of their own,” says Nuytten. “Certainly the average New Yorker was unaware that our ADS pilots were hard at work some 500 ft. down below their feet.”

The Exosuit looks more like it should belong in space rather than underwater, as its bulbous Iron Man appearance is move evocative of science fiction than deep sea exploration. That said, only about one-tenth of the ocean floor has been explored by humans, researchers estimate. When technology combines with innovative machining, fabricating and assembly, vessels like the Exosuit might reveal more about what rests—or lurks—below in our lifetime. FFJ

Sources

  • Nuytco Research, Ltd.
    North Vancouver, British Columbia
    phone: 604/980-6262
    www.nuytco.com
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