Sound as a pound

By Lynn Stanley

Above: A ceramic fiber blanket similar to the material used in Space Shuttle re-entry tiles can withstand heat up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

Aluminum survival capsule proves its weight in gold by resisting the pressures exerted by natural disasters

December 2017 - Film critic Robert Ebert called the movie “2012” “the mother of all disaster movies—and the father, and the extended family.” In it, to survive a global cataclysm of earthquakes and tsunamis, select members of society and those who could afford a €1 billion ticket boarded enormous high-tech “arks” secretly built in the Himalayas.

Julian Sharpe also thought about ways people could survive the devastation of a tsnuami. The story that follows might sound like a script for a “2012” sequel, but the death tolls these events cause isn’t fiction. Unlike ocean waves produced by storms, tsunamis are birthed by large earthquakes and landslides that occur near or beneath the ocean.

FFJ 1217 capsule image1

A spinning process forms the hemisphere of the capsule while minimizing time and manufacturing costs.

According to the National Weather Service, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2009 Samoa tsunami, 2010 Chile tsunami and 2011 tsunami in Tohoku, Japan, “focused the world’s attention on the infrequent but very real threat of tsunamis.”

In the U.S., tsunamis pose the greatest danger to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but the potential for catastrophic seismic waves on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts also exists. 

When Sharpe took his family for a weekend getaway to Cannon Beach, Oregon, in 2009, the small coastal city proved fertile ground for brainstorming some survival solutions. “We had four kids who were very little,” he says. “We had two huskies. I remember thinking how could we all evacuate in time?” Sharpe’s answer? A  lightweight personalized safety system made from aerospace grade 6061 aluminum just ¼-in. thick.

The inventor and aerospace engineer is president of IDEA Inc. (Innovative Design Engineering & Analysis) based in Mukilteo, Washington, a town that hugs Puget Sound. IDEA specializes in stress analysis, fatigue and damage tolerance, test support, design, and certification support for aerospace primes and military programs. The company performs work for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, for example.

FFJ 1217 capsule image2

Rolled, tubular aluminum is TIG welded to build the Survival Capsule’s frame.

Competition entry

Sharpe’s vision for a spherical survival capsule is based on almost 30 years of aerospace engineering experience.

 After sharing his concept with colleague Scott Hill, the two designed and built a prototype for the NASA Tech Brief Competition in 2011. The two- to four-person pod with two doors earned 9th place among 350 entries. Subsequent media coverage brought Sharpe and Hill into contact with Dr. Eddie Bernard, a 40-year veteran of tsunami research who is credited with inventing the tsunami warning system used in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

In 2012, Sharpe established Survival Capsule LLC with Hill as vice president and Bernard as vice president of research. Soon after, based on Bernard’s connections, Toho Mercantile in Tokyo commissioned Survival Capsule to build two prototypes. One was displayed at the Yokohama Disaster Preparedness Exposition in 2013.

The second pod underwent flotation trials in Tokyo Bay at maximum gross weight. In 2014, three production capsules were built in Japan with one displayed at the Hamamatsu Expo Shizuoka in 2014. That same year, Survival Capsule was awarded a U.S. patent for its product line.

Japan’s leading expert in tsunami preparedness and mitigation, Fumihiko Imamura, has vetted and endorsed the Survival Capsule, says Sharpe. Imamura is director and professor of Tsunami Engineering with the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

FFJ 1217 capsule image3

Japanese scientists discovered Super Critical Flow in a tsunami causes major damage to some reinforced concrete structures. The waterfall drop proved the capsule’s ability to resist this phenomenon.

On the market

The company launched its bright orange line of pods in the U.S. and Japan this year. Capsules are available in seven models designed to accommodate two, four, six, eight, 10 or 16 passengers. The first U.S.-built two-person capsule was delivered to a private customer in Long Beach, Washington, in January.

Standard features include safety seating, light, storage space, water storage, a Global Positioning System (GPS), air vents, air supply tanks and a marine-tested window.

The company’s ability to move toward commercial production so quickly can be attributed, in part, to a capsule design that is readily formed and fabricated yet meets U.S. military standards for reliability.

“We selected aluminum based on the environmental factors—thermal effects, ultraviolet exposure, debris impact and large compressive loads. It had to survive,” Sharpe explains. “It’s also relatively easy to form and fabricate. The sphere is the best shape for resisting load and fluid can flow freely around it.

“Seismic waves hit the beach at about 25 miles per hour,” he continues. “The sphere floats at about 18 to 20 miles an hour due to the shape loss factor. It’s very efficient.”

Testing has been rigorous. “With debris comes a lot of exposed rebar and bolts,” notes Sharpe. “So we performed sharp object penetration tests.”

FFJ 1217 capsule image4

The Survival Capsule can withstand large object impact, sharp object penetration, dynamic impact, shock and thermal conditions while maintaining flotation integrity.

Company engineers also studied thermal dynamics in order to select the proper liner for the pod.

“Temperature is measured on a curve that rises, then plateaus where heat applied equals heat lost,” says Sharpe. “Initially the equilibrium point was too high for occupants so we selected a ceramic fiber blanket to create a liner.”

The lightweight material is similar to that found in Space Shuttle re-entry tiles. High-strength, thermally efficient ceramic fibers made it possible for Survival Capsule “to heat the pod’s outside surface to 1,700 degrees [Fahrenheit] yet you could keep your hand on the interior and it would feel like a mildly warm sauna.”

Aluminum conducts heat very effectively, he says, “and if you are floating in a debris field on the cold Pacific, the water is also going to draw heat away from the capsule.”

Fasteners were chosen for mechanical strength. “If you have two passengers strapped into their seats and they are hit by a 2G load, the bolts have to be able to resist the weight of the person pushing against them,” Sharpe says.

Making the grade

In 2013, an unmanned capsule was subjected to a waterfall drop demonstration at Palouse Falls State Park in Washtucna, Washington. The pod was clocked at 75 miles per hour upon impact.

“We proved our capsule could survive Super Critical Flow, where a crashing wave separates and the upper portion suddenly accelerates to three times the standard wave velocity [75 mph],” says Sharpe. “Internal G forces measured as high as 17g de-accelerating, which is huge. So the conclusion is that the capsule is sound as a pound, as we say in England.”

Compression load testing proved the capsule could withstand up to 40,000 lbs. of pressure.

Fabricators weld tubular aluminum to build the capsule’s frame. An American company and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, both specialists in spinning techniques, produce the pod’s hemispheres.

FFJ 1217 capsule image5

2-person capsule standard model
Cost: $15,000
Weight: 300 lbs.
Diameter: 4.5 ft (54 inches)
Material: Aircraft grade aluminum
Potential orders to date: 750 (all sizes)
Float: Yes
Naturally aspirated: Closeable vents

Survival Capsule buys flat aluminum plate that is processed into large discs. Spinning minimizes the time and cost of manufacturing parts with its ability to produce economical, rapid prototypes.

Rotated at very high speeds against a wooden die or mandrel attached to a spindle, the aluminum discs are formed evenly without wrinkling. The spinning process allows for quick reiteration since only the mandrel is modified. Aluminum’s plasticity lends itself to this cold forming process, which induces deformation to create the desired shape.

“One die is good for about 300 hemispheres,” says Sharpe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Survival Capsule used an existing marine door design. Four “dogs”—devices that lock together two components—deliver an extremely tight seal. “When a capsule is fully loaded and afloat, the water level is just below the door seal,” he adds. “We tested the product and it passed, so we have a lot of confidence in it.”

Assembly process

Survival Capsule kits its pods for assembly by seven companies—three in the U.S. and four in Japan. All meet ISO quality standards. Kits include parts like the door, the frame and the hemisphere. Ninety-five percent of assembly requires TIG welding. Roughly 75 percent of the pod can be fabricated using robots.

“Once a capsule is completed, we review the finished product,” Sharpe says. “The beauty of the design is that if orders go up, we simply increase the number of welding stations.”

Survival Capsule has had inquiries from 700 potential customers across 30 countries, a number Sharpe says is rising daily. The product is getting a lot of attention in Japan, where 25,000 people died in the 2011 tsunami.

“Japan has 790,000 people living at sea level in the city of Hamamatsu,” Sharpe says. “Residents have as little as 3 minutes to respond between an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 9.0 and the first wave hitting shore.”

FFJ 1217 capsule image6

The patented Survival Capsule personal safety system can be built to protect between two and 16 adults.


The pod, which can be stored on the roofs of businesses, in backyards or garages, can also function during hurricanes.

“Hurricane Maria chased people all the way up the state of Florida,” Sharpe says. “The storm was so massive they couldn’t go right or left.” But people don’t want to leave their homes and businesses because they fear their property will be looted. “They want to be able to stay local. A lot of individuals see the capsule as a last line of defense. We offer a tether system: a hard link for hurricanes and a soft link for tsunamis.”

The operators of offshore oil platforms are evaluating the pods as escape capsules that could be deployed down a chute during an emergency and retrieved by a firefighting ship.

As orders grow, Sharpe admits it’s “rapidly becoming too much to handle ourselves. We’re looking for partners and investors. We want to open a showroom near Tokyo where we can conduct training on the water with users as well as medical and emergency response teams.”

Until now, says Sharpe, when trouble arrived, “people either had to run for higher ground or try to ride out a tsunami in a tall structure. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in these natural disasters. Our goal is to save lives. And we have a tool that can save family members and friends. Everything else can be rebuilt or replaced.” FFJ



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