Exosuit: Personal Deep Sea Exploration


The Exosuit, a 6.5-foot-tall, 530-pound diving suit will be tested in July 2014 on the Stephen J. Barlow Bluewater Expedition. The Exosuit is an atmospheric diving system which will be able to maintain an interior pressure comparable to surface conditions at a depth of 1,000 feet underwater. It also sports a set of 18 oil-filled flexible rotary joints on both the legs and the arms which will allow the wearer full control. The outcome of over 35 years of research, the dexterity is such that people with only an hour’s worth of training in the suit have been able to retrieve a coin off the ground. The Exosuit, a personal, one-man suit, is designed to allow deep sea exploration for what is currently considered an extended period of time.

The pressure at 1,000 feet underwater is 30 times that of surface pressure. In order to descend to such depths, specialized equipment is required. In the past, diving suits have only been able to remain at these types of depths for scant minutes before being required to ascend to the surface. Even then, the return ascent required hours of decompression in order to ensure the safety of the wearer. One of the last technologies, the Newtsuit, was hard to move in, lacking the joints and features of the Exosuit.

The Exosuit is built with 50 hours of life support, four sensor-activated 1.6-horsepower water-jet thrusters, and a fiber-optic tether to allow two-way communications between the diver and others. When the suit is deployed this summer, it will be accompanied by a DeepReef-ROV. The deep sea exploration in July will be a joint venture between the personal Exosuit and the ROV to look at and research bioluminescent creatures.

This summer, an expedition will be made 100 miles off the coast of New England, to an area of the ocean known as The Canyons. The Canyons is a mid-ocean range with a series of steep drops from the continental shelf to almost 10,000 feet in depth. The expedition will be heading out at night when the bioluminescent fish come to feed in shallower waters. It will be then that Mike Lombardi, the diver slated to be in the Exosuit, will descend to 1,000 feet to spend several hours with the fish.

Scientists are keen to study these strange creatures. Already having identified 180 different species of bioluminescent fish, they are convinced that there are many, many more. Additionally, they would like to know exactly how they live. They could be brought to the surface for study but due to the enormous pressure differentials very few come to the surface alive. This impacts their flashing patterns so in-depth research has been impossible.

Studying these fish is more than learning about them as a new species. The human brain harbors a protein, discovered in the 1960s, which has a similar counterpart in the bioluminescent fish. The current conjecture from scientists is that learning about the protein, they may learn more about how human brains operate and deteriorate. This knowledge could have future applications in research on Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and cancer. The proteins may also show us what happens within these creature’s cells because these usually hidden processes are seen as expressions of light.

Should all go well during the July expedition, it may be that before long a fleet of suits could be built. This would allow scientists to study the ocean, not only at a greater depth, but with more attention given to the smaller details. Coupled with ROV, the personal Exosuit is the newest technology for deep sea exploration.

By Dee Mueller