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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Across the ocean in a pedal-powered submarine

by Julian Smith

Ted Ciamillo's pedal-powered submarine may seem like a stunt, but marine biologists are paying serious attention (Image: Subhuman Project)

Ted Ciamillo's pedal-powered submarine may seem like a stunt, but marine biologists are paying serious attention (Image: Subhuman Project)


SOME men mark their 40th birthday by buying a flashy new car, changing jobs or finally getting started on that novel. Ted Ciamillo decided he would pedal across the Atlantic in a one-man submarine he has designed and built himself.

It may sound like a crazy stunt dreamed up by an adrenalin junkie, but the plan, dubbed the "Subhuman project", has attracted serious attention from marine biologists. That's because the sub, when it takes to the seas later this year, could for the first time allow them to explore the upper layers of the ocean silently and unobtrusively, revealing marine life as it has never been seen before.

Ciamillo, a machinist by training and an inventor by trade, does have a track record in underwater exploration. In 1997 he made his name designing a James Bond-style underwater propulsion vehicle called the Hydrospeeder, which looks something like an underwater motorbike. Although the company that sold the Hydrospeeder later folded, Ciamillo remained keen to speed up underwater exploration. "I found myself frustrated by how slowly you move under water, especially with a bunch of dive gear on your back," he says. "It's like dropping someone in the middle of the forest in a wheelchair."

So, in collaboration with marine biologist Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, who specialises in the biomechanics of cetacean swimming, Ciamillo designed a carbon-fibre "tail" for divers, called the Lunocet. Modelled on Fish's CAT scans of dolphin flukes, the Lunocet has a hydrofoil profile, like an underwater wing. "As dolphins move their tails up and down, they create a forward-directed lift," says Fish. This lift becomes thrust, and lots of it: dolphins have been clocked at 54 kilometres per hour. They can turn 80 per cent of their energy into thrust, compared with a paltry 3 per cent or so for unaided human swimmers and about 10 per cent for people wearing ordinary swim fins.

The Lunocet operates in a similar way, to enable the diver to swim as efficiently as possible. A dolphin-tail configuartion has previously been shown to be up to 15 per cent more efficient at transforming energy into forward motion than even the best rigid propellers.

Ciamillo and Fish say they knew they were onto something when the first prototype Lunocet, a piece of sculpted foam sandwiched between two pieces of carbon fibre, essentially swam by itself. When they released it at the bottom of a test pool, its buoyancy combined with its cambered shape generated a forward thrust that made it scoot across the tank. The company started selling the Lunocet last year and Ciamillo has already used one to propel himself at nearly 13 kilometres per hour, almost twice the top speed of Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.

Ciamillo designed his mini-submarine around a larger version of the Lunocet. The body of the vessel is built from lightweight yet tough materials: a stainless steel frame, a polycarbonate shell and a propulsion system made from aluminium and titanium. It will operate as a "wet" sub: instead of having a pressurised shell filled with air, it will be full of water at all times. Buoyancy is provided by PVC foam packed into the shell and from air bladders that can be filled or emptied to keep the vessel at the desired depth. At 1.2 metres at its widest point by 5 metres long it is not exactly roomy, but neither is it claustrophobic. "Being weightless, with all the windows, you feel like you have plenty of room," Ciamillo says.

Ciamillo will wear a wetsuit and breathe using scuba gear or a specially adapted snorkel. A major challenge will be keeping cool, since the average water temperature will be around 30 °C. One plan is to use a reflective coating to prevent the sun shining in through the top of the sub and heating the water inside.

Ciamillo will drive the sub from a seated position by pushing pedals back and forth, while also moving his arms forwards and backwards. It's "like a Stairmaster crossed with a cross-country ski machine", he says. The arm-and-leg drive system is linked to the flapping tail through a system of pulleys linked by a stainless steel cable.

To pedal the 3700 kilometres of open water from Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa to Barbados in the Caribbean should take around 50 days, Ciamillo estimates. He plans to pedal 2 metres below the surface all day, coming up only at night when he will sleep in a tent erected on the top of the sub. If the wind is blowing in the right direction he'll fly a kite to gain a few extra miles while he sleeps. In bad weather he'll take the sub below the surface and sit out the storm. This could be risky. If the waves take him too deep for too long and he then surfaces too quickly he risks the "bends", caused by dangerous bubbles of nitrogen in his blood. Another risk it that his air tanks run out of air while he sleeps, or if he is unable to surface to exchange them. "There are dangers in every point in the water column for a diver in a wet sub operating in high seas," says Ciamillo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced he'll make it across the Atlantic. "Most human-powered subs seem to work best with propeller mechanisms," says Jerry Rovner, director of operations for the annual International Submarine Races in Bethesda, Maryland. "It's been our experience that the fish-design boats don't have enough power," he explains. "We get them in every race... he's not going to get very far unless he's superhuman."

Undaunted, Ciamillo says he plans on intense physical training, including running and weightlifting, and may even have his appendix removed before the attempt, to eliminate the tiny chance that it may burst during the 50 days he is at sea. In an attempt to prepare mentally for the journey he consulted sailor Steven Callahan, who famously spent two-and-a-half months in a survival raft after his yacht sank in the Atlantic in 1982, and wrote the book Adrift about his experiences.

While Ciamillo freely admits that his project began as a way to get publicity for the Lunocet, it has also attracted the attention of marine researchers, excited by the wealth of data he could gather for them on his journey. The surface of the sea is a surprisingly little-known part of the biosphere, considering it covers two-thirds of the planet, says marine ecologist Cindy Van Dover of the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. "Current technologies and sampling methods allow us to study surface waters more as series of discrete points rather than as an environment and habitat," she says. "Near-surface waters are nearly as impenetrable as the depths of the ocean."

Studies that have been done, covering about 5 per cent of the ocean, have used destructive nets, or noisy boats or submarines studded with claws, motors and lights. The small size and motorless stealth of Ciamillo's sub, combined with its range and manoeuvrability, will allow it to gather data like no other vehicle, Van Dover says. "The Subhuman project could give us sustained access to these immense fields of biological productivity in a way we have not experienced before."

To that end, high-resolution video cameras mounted on the sub will run constantly to record everything from whales to plankton, as well as pollution such as floating trash and oil slicks. Once a day, Ciamillo will rendezvous with a support boat that will trail him the entire way and exchange exhausted batteries, videotapes, hard drives and air cylinders for fresh ones.

Bioluminescence researcher Edie Widder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Florida, is particularly excited by what Ciamillo might see. They are working together to mount a highly sensitive camera called the Eye in the Sea on the sub's nose, to search for elusive bioluminescent creatures that venture up at night from the depths to feed in surface waters. As many as 80 to 90 per cent of species in the open ocean may be bioluminescent, says Widder, making it possibly the most common form of visual communication on the planet. Even so, "we still don't know precisely why animals light up," she says, "or even how many types of glowing creatures there are down in the depths."

Widder has already used the Eye on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. There the camera was fitted with a lure nicknamed the "e-jelly" that mimics the flashing distress pattern of a deep-sea jellyfish. Less than 90 seconds after they first turned on the lights, the camera recorded a 2-metre-long squid that didn't fit into any category known to science. Another time, something larger left the camera face-down in the mud 50 metres away from its original position.

Ciamillo hopes to avoid whatever that was, but still plans to use the Eye for some night-time exploration, taking the sub down to 20 metres for 45 minutes at a time in search of bioluminescent creatures. It will be the first time the Eye has ventured beyond the continental shelf. "I've spent a lot of my career exploring the ocean with submersibles, but I've always been frustrated by the thought of how many animals we must be frightening away," says Widder. "I can't imagine a better vehicle as a first approach."

Before any of this can happen, though, the sub has to complete a programme of rigorous test runs in the 4000-cubic-metre lagoon that Ciamillo had dug outside his workshop in Georgia. So far it has proved buoyant and manoeuvrable, and the team are now tweaking the propulsion mechanism. That done, a series of two and three-day trial expeditions in the Florida Keys in the next few months will give both sub and pilot a thorough shakedown before the final launch from Cape Verde, slated for November.

Whether or not Ciamillo makes it to Barbados, the project will provide an invaluable service to marine science, Van Dover says. "So long as the vehicle doesn't become prey itself, the sensors it carries and the observer inside have a real possibility of changing the way textbooks describe the upper layers of the water column."

For her part, Widder hopes the audacious plan will help focus attention on the marine environment. "This is an ocean planet we're living on," she says. "If the oceans are in trouble, we're all in trouble. Maybe Ted swimming across the Atlantic will help to hammer than point home."

As for Ciamillo, he just wants to get across the Atlantic in one piece, mainly to see if he can. "This is the craziest thing I have ever done or ever will do," he says. "So I'm going to have as much fun doing it as I can."

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