Publish Date: Sept. 1994
THINK HARD: INTERVIEW WITH PHIL NUYTTEN
As this interview is being prepared for publication, Phil Nuytten, founder and CEO of Nuytco Research Ltd, Vancouver, Canada is working hard to complete his long held goal, a swimmable Exosuit, which will be the first self-propelled atmospheric diving system (ADS) rated for at least 100 meters. The suit will feature swimmable fins and prehensile hands operated by rings inside the hand pod. “It’s been more difficult than I originally thought,” Nuytten confessed to me. He’s another guy that just won’t quit.
The 76-year old ocean entrepreneur is currently working with the Office of Naval Research and Naval Systems Command to adapt his Exosuit technology for use by SEAL teams. In addition, his company continues to build DeepWorker submersibles for commercial use and for astronaut training under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Astronauts piloting DeepWorkers will be able to simulate landing on asteroids to carry out their missions. Nuytco also recently completed designing a specialized nine-foot high electric, oil-free ROV, NEWTROV, for use in municipal water systems that relies on ambient water in place of hydraulic fluid.
Have a near-impossible piece of underwater technology that you want to see developed? Just tell Nuytten, “It can’t be done.” Here is the original interview as it appeared in aquaCORPS, Issue # 8 HARD, September 1994.
THINK HARD: INTERVIEW WITH PHIL NUYTTEN
Trying to track down subsea guru Phil Nuytten is an exercise in communications prowess. Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) where are you? Seemingly in perpetual motion between his 3 Vancouver-based corporate offices, a dozen overseas locations, numerous machine shops, a running list of at least 10 phone numbers, five fax machines and assorted net addresses, 52-year old Nuytten—“the one atmosphere guy”—is no easy mark. Competitors agree.
His flagship enterprise, CAN-Dive, founded in 1966— Canada’s oldest and largest commercial diving contractor—was recently consolidated into chairman Nuytten’s rising star, Hard Suits Inc., makers of the NEWTSUIT, as part of a $5 million plus financing designed to propel the company to $85 million in projected sales over the next 3 years. Then there’s Nuytco Ltd., Nuytten’s private R & D company charged with bringing his Da Vinci-esque visions to life, the Deep Foundation which is erecting a “Hall of the Ironmen” —a tribute to NEWT-SUIT predecessors—and a series of blue chip ventures and cooperative technology agreements that promise to revolutionize the subsea service business. Eliminate the pressure and you eliminate the problems! Easier said than done.
The quest to build an articulated armor diving suit, an idea whose realization has been more than 200 years in the making, seemed like a pipe dream nearly 30 years ago when Oceaneering co- founder Nuytten first proposed it to the fledgling Oceaneering board. Thirteen hard years and many buy-outs later, Nuytten patented the first “depth-independent” armored suit joint design—a product of vision and just plain stubbornness—and the pressure hasn’t let up since. In scope and implication, Nuytten’s “pressure-balanced” NEWTSUIT joint can be thought of as the “demand valve of one atmosphere diving”—the enabling technology that will spawn a whole new era of diving. The 21st century cannot be too far behind.
Until then, the former freediving champion, dive store owner, hard hat diver, deep submersible pilot, and adopted son of the Kwakiutl western Indian tribe, plans to keep moving full tilt boogie on his 20 to 30 unfinished projects ranging from building a next generation suit and articulated hand, to installing the new sonar on his personal Deep Rover sub and getting his 41-foot ADS-equipped dive boat ready to rock ‘n’ roll—all this while writing a book on hard suit technology and his second on totem pole carving, a passion from boyhood. And to ease the pressure, Nuytten still finds time to just go walk about, scraping boat bottoms, free diving with Beluga in the Arctic Circle, fashioning hand-engraved gold and silver jewelry for his friends, and dreaming up new things to build while dozing in the big northwest kelp beds near his home. Small wonder Nuytten has earned the reputation as Canada’s renaissance man. Eh? And why, Hard Suit’s Vancouver headquarters is becoming the new Mecca for underwater pilgrims of all ilks.
If Nuytten is right, diving is about to take its biggest leap forward in more than a century, and the result may be that ambient-pressure diving, “getting wet,” will become even more unique. It’s a hard idea for conventional wisdom to fathom. But then Rene Theophil Nuytten has never been limited by convention.
Here’s what he had to say.
I had a dream that I was on the Key West Diver IV suiting up in a lightweight steel-blue composite hard suit. I remember checking out the articulated arm that was not much bigger than my own. I rotated the wrist and prosthetic, activated my gripper a couple of times and locked down the visor and powered up my display—computer interface, real-time imaging, video feed. I joked with Billy Deans on the comms as we eased back to the swim step with his, “I get hard just thinking about the Wilkes-Barre”. I was there. It was now. After that, something just clicked on in my brain. Why not?
That’s marvelous. I’d love to see a drawing of that suit. We evidently share a vision.
One that you’ve been pursuing for 25 years!
In my more poetic moments, I see myself forging little passports to the three-quarters of this planet that we’re denied access to. We’re born into this water world and yet, because of the very narrow band of pressure that we are designed to live in, we’re denied passage to a large part of the planet. Do you realize that we’re the first generation to actually see our home from space? Why did we ever call it Earth? When you look at it from space, you don’t think earth – you think water, because that’s what it is. Three quarters of this planet is under water. So now that I’m long in tooth and not occupied with other things, I’m busily engaged in building passports to get us down there. One day we will be able to march around on the bottom of the oceans.
One of your board members, Lad Handelman [ex-Oceaneering CEO] told me he thought that you were “beyond the edge” but you were also balanced.
I don’t know how you do that.
He didn’t either. He said, “Phil’s really way out there. He’s crazy but he’s balanced. That’s what has always surprised me.” That’s what Handelman said.
Hmm. I was useful at Oceaneering because I could always be relied on to take an entirely unorthodox view of everything. It didn’t matter whether it was corporate policy or hardware. I would try four or five different ways to solve a problem. If everybody else pulled the steering wheel off the shaft, I would clamp the steering wheel and drive the shaft out of it. Maybe that’s what Laddie means. Regardless of what it was, I could usually come up with a wrinkle that was very different. Sometimes it was better, often it was not, but at least it gave us alternatives to consider. We came up with gimmicks that I dreamed up at Oceaneering that simply baffled the shit out of our competition. They couldn’t believe it. “How the hell do they think of this stuff?” No one would have thought of that?” And a lot of those wild ideas became standards in the industry.
Zig, while the world is zagging?
What I really get a bang out of here at Hard Suits/CAN-Dive is that everybody does that. It’s our standard method of operating. People here wouldn’t think of doing it in any other way. Our convention is being non-conventional.
Hard suit culture?
When I first introduced these techniques here a long time ago, some people looked at me like I had three heads. They said, “You must be crazy.” This will never work. It will never be accepted. Twenty-five years later, the kids who learned to do things in that way, are experienced hands who can’t imagine doing it any other way. That in itself is a source of tremendous satisfaction for me, as well as, cause for an occasional chuckle.
One atmosphere diving (ADS) would probably be classed as pretty non-conventional by some people.
Atmospheric diving is not a universal panacea. It’s not the ‘be all to end all.’ But I think it is a very valuable tool in our arsenal to defeat our old enemy: pressure. As I’ve said in many talks, pressure really is the enemy. It’s the physiological effects of pressure. It’s going where we’re not meant to go. Fortunately, we can defeat these biological limitations by using the armor of technology. I know that sounds like a grandiose metaphor, but the fact of the matter is that all of us travel on jet planes and that’s exactly what we’re doing. I mean, you don’t fly very well, but there are machines that do and you use them. We don’t go to a 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 feet worth a damn the way that we’re born, but there are ways to get there and do it safely.
ADS is such a logical solution to the problem that its use is virtually inevitable. I tend to get stereotyped as the “one atmosphere guy,” but the fact is that my whole career has been a progression from freediving and scuba to heavy-gear diving and subs. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the early commercial efforts to develop deep mixed gas diving into a safe and effective procedure. We came up hard against the physiological limitations of pressure right about where they had been anticipated; gas density, inert gas narcosis, and later HPNS. And there were the less-than-subtle effects of bone necrosis, vestibular nerve damage, and the whole host of other potential consequences of deep ambient-pressure diving. Don’t get me wrong, today, work still goes on to improve decompression tables and to refine techniques, but in the absence of a major breakthrough in biotechnology, it’s evident that ambient-pressure diving has stopped considerably shallower than 1000 meters. If humans are ever to walk on the bottom of the oceans of this planet, it will very likely be in a version of an ADS system.
The edge of the envelope?
Look at it another way. Ambient-pressure diving has already reached its useful limits. On the other hand mono-bar systems are just getting started. To use the aircraft development as an analogy, ADS is past the “Kitty Hawk” stage and nearing the end of the bi-plane era. In the future, it will probably become the standard for conventional diving. People will look back at the ambient-pressure saturation or bounce-diving in the same way that we now view deep breath-hold dives. “Pretty wild stuff – but I’d hate to work that way!” And that, of course, is the bottom line: doing work.
Getting the job done.
Right. I see the one atmosphere suit as a logical progression of wanting to get down to depth and work. It’s an important and valuable deep diving tool. When you’re in the business, you don’t care how you get there as long as you can do the work. The client doesn’t care either; all he wants is to get his problem solved. As contractors, our whole job has been to try to figure out, first of all, the best and safest way to get there for the customer, and second, how to do the work in the most efficient manner and manage to make a buck. It isn’t philanthropy on our part. If you aren’t the most efficient, then the guy down the block will take the work away from you.
And that’s what’s driving the technology?
Exactly! Fear, loathing, envy and greed. [Nuytten chuckles.] Just kidding.
Let’s talk terms. Your company is called Hard Suits but you use the term ADS, “atmospheric diving system,” to describe these devices. Is that the proper terminology for this technology?
The term ADS was coined by a small English company, Underwater Marine Electronics Ltd. (UMEL) in the 1970s. It originally stood for “atmospheric diving suit”. Then we at Oceaneering started getting into other forms of one atmosphere systems like the Arms bell, a bell thruster with a powerful manipulator, that also fit the definition. So, we changed the name from atmospheric diving suit to “atmospheric diving system.” Technically speaking, ADS means any diving system that contains one atmosphere including submersibles, classical submarines, anything that operates at one atmosphere. ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) are classed separately because they don’t have an atmosphere; think of them as “solid state”. I guess the proper term would be ADS technology.
Hard suits sounds cooler.
Hard suits is both the name of our company and it also describes the genre. These are all hard suits as opposed to soft ambient-pressure suits. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain that to laymen. They look at the old bronze hard hat with the bars across the windows and mistake it for an armored diving suit. Everybody assumes it withstands the pressure. Of course, it doesn’t. So we want to distinguish ADS from soft suits whether it’s scuba, a hot water suit, or skin. It’s a hard carapace suit, an exo-skeleton, all those difficult and hard to spell terms. Hard suit says it all. Of course, we don’t call our suit the “Hardsuit”.
You call it the NEWTSUIT.
It’s our trademark. It’s one of a group of hard suits that’s called the NEWTSUIT. The WASP and the JIM of course are also called hard suits.
When did you first start thinking about hard … uh … one atmosphere diving suits? How far does the story go back?
Way back. I started thinking about what we called, “zero decompression” suits in those days the first time I got the bends. And the first time I saw a person killed by pressure. And when I lost my partner to a pressure-induced accident. It was in my mind for a very long time at my original company, CAN-Dive. And then, in 1969, we formed Oceaneering and had our first board meeting. Everybody had their big wish list of all the things they wanted to accomplish and we went around the table: Laddie Handelman, Mike Hughes, myself and few other guys. I sat there with a little mock-up joint of an atmospheric diving suit and I told them, “Oh, boy, this is what we gotta build. It’s the way of the future.” Everybody patted me on the head and said, “Yeah, maybe one of these days we’ll get around to it. People have been trying to build one successfully for a couple for centuries now, and no one’s done it. We’re not too worried about the competition.” And I said, “But what it somebody develops a successful one atmosphere suit? What happens to saturation diving? What would happen to our whole company? We rely on deep diving for income; we’ll be tits up.” My speech gave them pause for thought, but not much.
Deep diving was your ticket?
We were wound up on deep ambient-pressure diving. It was the whole reason for life as far as I was concerned. Life was put on this planet for the sole reason of going out on a diving bell, deeper and deeper every day. That was our competitive edge: the ability to dive deep. At the time, the first 1000-foot commercial contracts had just been let and that paved the way. It was a clear indicator to the industry that the oil companies were going past 1000 feet and everybody was just in a terrible tailspin. We were literally saying, “Holy Christ, we just barely got to 1000 feet alive, and here they’re going deeper. We’re going to have to go deeper!” We were already pushing the envelope. But the oil companies were using a lure that we just couldn’t resist: money. So I kept pitching my idea for a zero decompression suit, a rigid suit, a lobster suit. I had all sorts of names for it. Then, in 1972, there was an announcement that UMEL had successfully restored the old Peress suit, now known as JIM 1 and re-engineered the suit and joints (see Ironmen History below). I got frantic calls from our board of directors essentially saying, “Is this the messiah whose coming you predicted?” And I said, “Maybe it is and maybe not. But if it is, we’re in serious trouble. So I told them, “I better get my butt over there and check it out. If it looks good, then I can begin the negotiations for the rights to this thing.” And that’s what we did. As soon as it became an economic threat it got our directors’ attention.
You bought the rights to the JIM suit?
Not at first. I dived the thing and I had very mixed reactions. Here was a way to get to 1000 feet quickly but so was a submersible. The trouble with submersibles is that you couldn’t work. Not the kind of work we were doing. You could see the problem. You could turn powerful lights on it. You could nose right up to it but you couldn’t do anything about it. At least with the JIM suit you had the ability to move the limbs and manipulators directly and accomplish limited tasks.
Of all the guys at Oceaneering, I was the only one that had extensive experience with deep submersibles, so to me, the ability to get down to 500 or 1000 feet in a one atmosphere device was a known thing. It was an unknown to Laddie and Mike Hughes. They said, “Geez, you’re going down in a rigid suit? Don’t you think that’s risky?” I said, “Risky? For Christ sakes, compared to going down naked?” The problem with the JIM suit was that it had a very limited envelope of movement. But it showed me that if we could improve the envelope and ease of movement, we’d have a very effective working system. It’s a long story fraught with a lot of adventure. The upshot was that Oceaneering bought a controlling interest in UMEL and we had the exclusive marketing rights for the suit worldwide.
Was that about the time you developed the WASP suit?
It was shortly after that. The JIM suit worked fine on the bottom—limited as it was—it hobbled around after a fashion. But it wasn’t worth a shit mid-water. When you hung it like a pendulum and tried to work you just pushed yourself away. There was nothing we could do to make it work efficiently off the bottom for platform and pipeline inspections and salvage work and that represented a log of our jobs. So I came up with a concept for a hybrid between a submersible, a JIM suit and a diving bell. I called it “Shrimp-man.” I made some very careful drawings and submitted them in a report to my fellow board members. Mike Hughes looked at them, made some changes and we came up with the forerunner of the WASP. I think we called it “meat in a can.” No, that’s not right. That term came later. I don’t remember exactly what we called it at first.
DHB/Oceaneering had just hired a brilliant young engineer named Graham Hawkes and one of his first jobs was to take our basic concept and design it into the WASP, which he did. Unfortunately, we had a full-build program with the JIM suits and it was going to take time before we could build the WASP. Graham wasn’t happy with that at all. He wanted to build the WASP. To make a long story short, he wound up quitting the company, and going with another company called Offshore Systems Engineering (OSEL) where he build a mid-water ADS and called it the WASP. We wound up suing their ass in the high court of Britain and settling out of court. We actually came to a fairly amicable settlement. They agreed that we owned the WASP and we agreed to use OSEL exclusively to build the WASP units. We gave them a contact and put the WASPs to work as they were delivered. Graham later engineered the first Deep Rover for me, and went on to do amazing things. He’s a clever guy who’s high on my affection/respect list.
When was that?
What happened next?
Our original cut was to do the development of ADS in four stages. The first two stages were represented by the original Peress suit and UMEL’s improved version with the Type 2 joints (see Ironmen History). The third suit would be a much-improved version of the JIM and would have maximum dexterity that would allow you to do almost anything that a saturation diver could do. That would call for a radical new design; not just a rehash. Finally, we planned to develop a very light-weight, free swimming, shallow water suit.
That was to be the ultimate. I started developing what was to be a version three which eventually became the NEWTSUIT. Then, in 1970, Oceaneering and I had, let’s call it a policy disagreement, about whether or not to go forward with the suits. I wanted to build the suits but the company was under a new leader who had other directions he felt the company should pursue. So we came to a parting of the ways. I left Oceaneering and went on to complete the next stage of ADS back at my original company CAN-Dive. That’s where the NEWTSUIT came from.
You re-started CAN-Dive?
It’s interesting that even how, people think that CAN-Dive and CAL-Dive were small regional companies owned by mega-giant Oceaneering. In fact, we co-founded Oceaneering. We were joined by Mike Hughes and Johnny Johnson of World-Wide Divers, along with a couple of side-bar deals that various individuals owned. That was it. Instant Oceaneering. Just add water and stir. God, those were great days….
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I bought 50% of CAN-Dive back from Oceaneering in 1979, and purchased the remaining 50% in 1984 and repatriated the company back to Canada. Back to square one, except that I had thrown CAN-Dive into the pot to begin with. And when it came to buying it back, it cost me millions and millions of dollars. I have no regrets at all. The whole Oceaneering thing was a wonderful dream, a great triumph for a bunch of hard working young divers. At least until the professional flimflam managers and corporate morticians got involved, but that’s another story. Fortunately, that era was a relatively short aberration, and today Oceaneering is one of the best run and respected companies in the industry.
How long did it take you to develop the first NEWTSUIT?
Eight years. We finally patented the basis of the joint in 1982 and then patented a different joint, similar to the one we are using now, in 1985. We built the first working NEWTSUIT prototype over the period of 1985 to ‘86. Then in 1987, Hard Suits became an independent company, independent from CAN-Dive, and went public on the Vancouver exchange. [CAN-Dive became a wholly owned subsidiary of Hard Suits Inc. in 1994 –Ed.]
Let’s talk joints.
The joints are the whole secret of the NEWTSUIT. Otherwise, it’s just a big camera case. Amphibico could probably do a helluva lot better job of building a NEWTSUIT different than a conventional submersible. They enable you to articulate what would otherwise be a rigid shell. And that’s the real problem.
If you go to your public library, you can find wonderful books on the “Ironmen,” the armored diving suits of the ‘20s and the ‘30s, salvaging the gold of Egypt and doing all these wonderful things. What they don’t tell you is that the suits didn’t articulate. They worked somewhat in very shallow water; 50 feet, 75 feet, 100 feet, but as the depth increased, the friction increased and so did the torque required to move the joints. As a result, the suits turned to concrete at very modest depths.
How did they do salvage work?
The suits were used as observation bells to direct grabs, cranes, place explosive charges and that sort of stuff. The salvagers were able to tear wrecks apart, but the suits never really moved.
Sir Robert H. Davis identified the problem in his continually revised classic “Deep Diving and Submarine Operations” (1930-55). A perfect armored dress would be: (a) capable of resisting the external pressure of great depths while containing air at atmospheric pressure only. And (b), would enable the wearer, by his own unaided efforts, to move freely about underwater and to use tools with the same facility as a diver equipped with the ordinary type of diving dress. Davis went on laconically to state that problem (a) represented little difficulty, but (b) has yet to be solved; and he was absolutely right.
It wasn’t solved in the ‘30s, however a lot of good work towards a solution was accomplished by the German firm of Neufeldt and Kunhke (see “Ironmen History). It wasn’t solved in the ‘60s or ‘70s with the development of Oceaneering’s JIM and WASP, although the Peress JIM suit was a major technological achievement for its time. I’m not trying to detract from either the JIM or the WASP, they were necessary milestones in the progress of atmospheric diving suits. The problem is that the joints turn to concrete as the depth increases; they get stiffer and stiffer until they become immobile for all practical purposes. The NEWTSUIT was developed over the period of 1979 to 1987 and it hasn’t completely solved the problem, either, though it comes a lot closer than its predecessors. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will look back at the NEWTSUIT from some future vantage point and be amazed at how primitive it will seem compared to the ADS of the day.
People have been working on this problem for over 200 years. Why was it so hard?
The strange thing is that the NEWTSUIT joints are pretty damn simple. It’s the sort of simplicity that follows complexity. I know that sounds goofy, but it’s true. People say to me, “That’s very clever,” and my response is, “If it was simply very clever, I would have come up with it in a weekend.” After you spend eight or nine years working on this stuff; that’s not clever, it is sheer dogged determination!” The only reason that it got done is because I shot my mouth off in the early days and said I could do it, and it would have been such a tremendous loss of face not to that I kept on with it. At some point, I had so much time and money invested, I couldn’t quit. Now the “pressure-balanced” joint has been such a tremendous loss of face not to that I kept on with it. At some point, I had so much money and time invested I couldn’t quit. Now the “pressure-balanced” joint is the least of our problems. Five, six, or seven years ago it seemed insurmountable, honestly impossible to do. We’ve come a long way.
Explain it to me.
There are three basic considerations in designing an effective ADS joint. First, there’s the movement geometry: the joint must be able to rock, flex, rotate or slide with the least friction possible. The less friction, the easier it is to move. Part of the friction is caused by the pressure seals (think of a swivel O-ring), which must keep out water and pressure. Finally, there must be a means, for example, with a bearing, to transfer the “pressure” load between the two ends of the joint with minimal friction so that they can move. Remember the water pressure is acting to telescope the limb back into the suit. Transferring that load with minimal friction is the key.
The basic idea is pretty simple. Let’s use your foot as an example. Try to spin with one foot planted flatly on the floor. It’s difficult. Your foot must transfer the load (your weight) from you to the floor while you are turning. Now tilt up on one heel. You can turn easily. The area of contact, and therefore, the friction, has been greatly reduced even though the point load has increased in direct proportion. Turn on a hard wood floor and it’s even easier, unless you were to add a lot more weight. That’s how ball and roller bearings work; they are very hard surfaces with high point loads. Unfortunately, as you increase the load, the friction on the ball or rollers increases as well until they eventually embed themselves into the turning surfaces and stop.
The problem in ADS is that the loads exerted on the limbs by the pressure are extremely high. That’s why mechanical bearings only work at very modest depths. For example, at 1000 feet/307 m there is almost 500 pounds per square inch on a wrist joint which has a surface area of about 25 square inches. If you do the simple math, you realize that the end load pressure on the joint is roughly equivalent to having a London double-decker bus standing on top of a bearing [25 sq. in. X 500 psi = a load of 12,500 psi –ed.] There’s not a bearing made that will tolerate that kind of load in that small an area. So you have to find means to handle the load, transfer it through the limb back to the fixed point, in this case the suit, and have it move easily enough to be driven by muscle power. Designing the bearings and seals to transfer high loads at low friction is one of the most difficult problems in ADS design.
How did you solve it?
The major break-through in the NEWTSUIT consists of two parts: a bearing that is not a bearing, and a pressure seal that sees virtually no pressure. The bearing transfers the load through a fluid. Conceptually, the joint is made pressure-tight by two spring-loaded seals floating freely on a cushion of oil that is perfectly balanced against the external pressure. To move the joint you sheer the fluid. As you know from high school physics, a dense fluid, such as oil, is practically incompressible. Any load applied to it is simply transferred through from one side to the other. No matter how much pressure is applied, the whole mechanism is held static. It can move freely with minimum friction. The moving seal doesn’t know it’s under pressure because it has the same pressure above and below it. There is a static seal that does see a pressure differential, but it does not have to rotate. The result is a seal that is automatically pressure-balanced. It is under tremendous pressure but it is completely equalized. That is the basis of our series of international patents. It’s a principal patent, not an application patent. As far as we’re able to determine the principle has never been utilized before. It’s that basic.
What’s more is that the whole mechanism is a “fail-safe” design. Any failure in the seal means that the oil serving as the bearing will leak into the sea or into the suit and will no longer hold the sealing surfaces apart. The result is that the entire joint will lock up tighter than a bull’s ass in a windstorm. The joint will be totally immobilized but will not leak a drop. The fail-safe joint is similar to the “dead-man” switch on your diver propulsion vehicle. If your finger fails, the system itself shuts down.
I’ve read “Ironman” [Marvel Comics] since I was a kid – the notion of flying around in a do-all/be-all power suit has obviously been around for a long time. Is that the direction the technology is going to go?
Oh, yeah. The things of comic books and science fiction are going to come to life, particularly in the next generation suits. I think you’re going to see a situation where the suit will become all important. It’ll be like a violinist’s violin or a pianist’s piano. You won’t be able to operate without it. It’ll be your armor, your protection. It’s where you like to be. It’ll be how you see, how you walk, how you move. It will mean everything to you. I think that’s going to make for some pretty interesting neurosis down the road.
“Tony Stark” [Ironman] has certain had his fair share. What are the technical barriers to a power-assisted suit? Is the technology here?
No. The problem is one of control, and boy, we have looked hard at it and so has the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Remember, the NEWTSUIT arm is a hollow conduit. It can’t describe the arcs of motion that a typical manipulator can do or it would cut your arm off. Anything that is strong enough to assist you will also be very detrimental to your meat if it gets away. That’s a real concern.
Are the robotics people, like Schilling, working on that kind of stuff?
No, they’re not because they’re not working on hollow conduits. Interestingly enough, the General Electric Company developed a whole series of semi-cybernetic devices called “Handyman” and “Man-Mate” about 20 years ago. The Man-Mate Division went on to develop the walking front-end loader—the exo-skeleton that was used in “Alien 3″. It was based on the G. E. Arm, a very fine device, which was a spatially-correspondent, tactile feedback manipulator. Spatial correspondence means that when you moved the master unit that you held in your hand, the corresponding slave manipulator moved proportionately to your movement. It could even sense weight. For instance, you could pick up something with the arm and you feel the weight on the master; you could set it so it would be 1 to 1, 1 to 10, whatever you wanted, an absolutely marvelous device. I believe Western Space and Marine, out in Santa Barbara, is working with them now.
You would put it on and it would amplify your strength?
Exactly. The way they accomplished it was by having the arm almost in a state of hysteresis at all times. They jack up the hydraulic pressure until this thing was quivering, about to explode, and then it was very easy to control because the slightest bias either way would cause it to work, and when it moved, it moved with a fair amount of force. The problem was if it got away from you, the thing was absolutely unbelievable. This thing flailed around and bashed things down. It was like a science fiction story gone wild. I’ve always been a little nervous about putting something like that into a suit. What we’ve done instead is to say OK, if we can’t power the joints effectively, then we’ve got to make the joints virtually torque-free or zero-friction so that they can be muscle-driven.
What about articulated hands?
We may be able to do it in the shallow water suit, but it becomes increasingly more difficult as you go deeper because of the sheer physical size of the apparatus required. You can’t build a big enough housing. You can make a pressure mitt, but an articulated finger glove is very difficult because of the space limitation between the fingers. I spent a lot of time working on a pressure mitt, but surprisingly, it turned out not to be necessary. I was saying, “Gee, we can’t do without this.” And everybody else said, “No, the manipulators we’re using work just fine.” And we put it to the test and they were right.
How can you work with a pair of grippers?
It’s not what one would expect. I say there’s more than a hundred million Chinese that haven’t starved to death and that’s essentially what they’re doing. The fact is that all you have to do is watch someone with a set of hooked prostheses; some people can do absolutely marvelous things. Once you get on to it, there’s no trick at all.
Do you have tool fittings on the hand as well?
Originally, we thought about taking the regular gripper off and substituting a tool for it. But instead of doing that we’ve build a quick disconnect on the side of the hard pot so that you can literally turn it around like a Lazy Susan and select your fitting. Here’s your cutting torch, turn it again. Here’s your hand, turn it again. Here’s your drill. You can attach and detach the fittings inside the suit. As a result, we have been able to do everything that’s required for typical oil field tasks.
That’s the point, isn’t it?
The most important question to ask about the NEWTSUIT, or any other ADS, is a simple one: Does it work? And our answer is, yes. Yes, it does! Good as a SAT diver? Nope. It’s not as easy as a guy in a hot water suit. A number of tasks take longer and require more thought and preparation. But then a SAT diver can’t get down to 1000 feet in five minutes, do whatever it is that he or she is going to do, and come right back up.
What the NEWTSUIT can’t do is the interesting question. We don’t know. We’ve been able to do everything that we’ve been asked to do work-wise. For example, we’ve never wet-welded with the NEWTSUIT (Yet!). But I have no doubt that it can. No ADS, no JIM suit, no WASP had ever done underwater burning until the NEWTSUIT did it a while back, the first time we tried it! No problem at all. It did it exactly the same way a SAT diver would do it. It plowed through Broco rods like a demented construction diver.
I’ve noticed that you keep referring to the suit as an “entity”. Is that the neurosis setting in?
Occupational hazard. You know it’s funny. We say, “The NEWTSUIT installed an AX ring.” But we don’t say “The Superlite 17 completed a wet weld.” Obviously it’s the user every time. Whether it’s piloting a helicopter or working at the bottom of the sea, the right guy can get results out of the worst junk. The wrong guy can’t perform with the finest equipment known to man. The idea, of course, is to get good people in good hardware. That’s the combination that makes underwater contracting a satisfying experience instead of a damn nightmare.
What else can a user do?
You name it. You can tie a bow-line, install a Hydra-tight, make up a spool-piece flange from start to finish, handle a water-blaster, do NDT (non-destructive testing) work, install slings, use come-alongs, handle just about every air or hydraulic tool known to man, do videography, photography, radiography, and probably even mammography.
A hard man is good to find?
Our clients think so. The old timers, the heavy-gear construction divers, have a terse way of putting it. They say, “The bullshit ends on the ladder!” And they’re absolutely right! The ADS is a specialized tool not a panacea. It’s like a helicopter in the sense that it’s difficult to design and build, and right now it’s expensive. But used in the way it was designed, nothing else does the job quite as well. And the job for which ADS was designed is to get humans, with their marvelous brain and senses, down to the bottom and back safely without exposure to the pressure. No compression begets no decompression.
What about life support? How do you breath in a NEWTSUIT?
The life support system is a closed-circuit rebreather that’s pretty interesting. It’s similar to ambient-pressure systems with one very obvious difference; we’re using it in a rigid container. That makes a hell of a difference. It’s fifty times easier to control than a soft counter lung. Let me tell you why. The NEWTSUIT is a rigid container with air inside. The air enters the suit along with the pilot. You close the port off and the suit is air-tight. What happens to the cabin pressure as the pilot metabolizes the oxygen in the air?
Uhmm … the pressure drops.
Right. The air in the suit is comprised of 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen at one atmosphere of pressure or 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch). The partial pressures of each of these gases: oxygen 3.08 psi and nitrogen 11.6 psi, add up to 14.7 pounds. If you were to breathe and metabolize all the oxygen, the pressure would fall to 11.6 pounds. Right? But wait a minute you say, you’re breathing back out CO2 so you’re maintaining the pressure. But it’s a rebreather, and the CO2 is being chemically scrubbed, chemically bound to a scrubber material, so the cabin actually loses pressure. A lot of people have trouble with that concept. They want to know where the pressure goes. Trust me, it goes. The pressure falls as your body metabolizes the O2 and the scrubber absorbs the CO2.
Now think of a second stage scuba regulator. All second stages have some sort of demand valve, and essentially, what happens is that when you suck on the mouthpiece, the diaphragm depresses against the lever and gives you gas. In the NEWTSUIT we take a demand regulator and connect it to a metal bellows sealed at 14.7 psi. As a result, the slightest pressure drop in the suit (I’m not talking about pounds, I’m talking about millibar), the slightest pressure drop causes the diaphragm of the bellows which is sealed at 14.7 to expand. As it expands, it hits a tilt valve and voila, the oxygen flows in until it compresses the bellows back down to 14.7 and stops the flow. The bellows and valve system maintains the 14.7 psi atmospheric pressure in the suit by adding back in the oxygen consumed by the operator. It’s the simplest, no-brainer O2 supply system that ever existed. It works like a champion.
You have a constantly replenished source of “air” mix.
Right. It’s really neat. The oxygen metering system is as close to, not infallible, but about as close to it as you can get. What’s more is that we have two completely redundant O2 systems in the suit, including bottles, regulators, metering systems and measuring systems. It’s absolutely, completely redundant.
Cave divers will love it.
A small bomb can go off outside your NEWTSUIT, blow off one side of the oxygen system and all that happens is that instead of having 54-hours of life support, you would now have 27, which is plenty of time. The 54-hour capability was added because of concerns about entrapment. If you were trapped, you could last 54-hours. We’ve successfully demonstrated this capability in freezing water for a Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. They were rather startled at the way we handled the O2 system. In fact, their first response was, “That won’t do it; it’s too simple; we can’t allow it; it hasn’t been done before.” When they understood it they thought it was pretty clever.
Is the NEWTSUIT self-contained or umbilical-driven?
It requires an umbilical with the thruster pack—you need to get power from somewhere—the thrusters run on about 460 volts. But remember the suit was built as a walking suit, not as a flying suit. The thruster pack started out as a luxury. It’s a bicycle compared to Shank’s pony, compared to walking. So we added the thruster pack and what happened was, as soon as the divers had flown it, they never wanted to walk again. It’s so much easier to just push the button and fly. And I mean, that sucker really gets up and moves.
How fast is it?
We don’t try to set any speed records and remember most of the time you’re in a vertical orientation. It’s the ease of flying. The real trick is not so much the power but the variable pitch props that you can cut in an out instantly so you fly like a hummingbird. You zip from place to place. You don’t have an acceleration or a de-acceleration curve. The motors are running full speed all the time. And the props are just feathered—you just cut the props in and out and the suit literally…it accelerates so quickly that it almost swings through the water. It’s just really something to see it.
How deep can the NEWTSUIT go?
The current production hulls are estimated to have a collapse depth of approximately 5,000 feet/1535 meters giving it a 500% safety factor over the rated working depth of 1000 feet. We have also developed a set of prototypes rated for a working depth of 1200 feet/375 meters that have been delivered on a field contract. The reason that I’m not even talking about going deeper is because it’s no particular trick to go deeper. Because of the nature of the joint, the NEWTSUIT’s not depth-sensitive. It could go to the bottom of the Mindanao Trench. All you have to do is strengthen the hull and joint members and the suit will continue to function forever. It’s not a trick to go deeper. The real trick is going to be building the shallow water suit—a suit that will do everything that a scuba diver ever dreamed of doing down to 100 meters.
I want to get to that later. Let’s talk about safety. Are you worried about the suit collapsing on you or springing a leak?
Well, you have to keep in mind this is commercial gear, and as such is different from self- contained sport diving equipment. First of all, you’re on a tether, and secondly, you have excellent communications with the topside crew, which is standard in any commercial operation. If you have a problem, you say so … and you get hauled up. If your umbilical or tether gets snagged and you can’t free it, you call for a stand-by diver or rescue vehicle. If, for some reason, that’s not possible, you can switch to through-water comms, jettison your umbilical, and work your way clear of the dive platform. Then you drop your weights and come up.
As far as leaks are concerned, it’s pretty unlikely, since the source of the leak will either be the entry or the vision-dome seals or the joints themselves. The joints are fail-safe, so they should be the last thing to give you a water entry problem; but suppose you did have a leak in the suit. Consider this: if the suit was HALF FULL OF WATER you would gain only one more atmosphere, so you would be at 33 f/10 m inside (Yup, good ole Boyle’s Law) by the time the water level was up to your chin, you’d only be at 66 f/20 m. And what do you think you’d be doing while all this water was coming in? You would be hauling your ass to the surface, and squeaking in high falsetto.
What’s the NEWTSUIT feel like at depth?
The biggest sensation is one of disappointment, because there’s no way to tell how deep you are. It takes some of the mystique out of deep diving. If you close your eyes, you can’t tell if you’re at five feet or a thousand. There’s almost no degradation in movement of the joints at all. It’s impossible to tell the difference between, say, 200 feet/61 m or 800 feet/246 m from anything the suit did. It sounds the same, smells the same, looks the same, it doesn’t creak or groan. You look at the gauge and it says 800 feet. It’s incredible.
There’s another unusual thing about the suit, when you first try it, no matter what size you are (the suit’s always the same size), it feels like there’s not much room in there. Although the suit is adjustable length-wise from five foot-six inches to six foot-five, it doesn’t change in diameter. When you first get in, you feel like a bologna inside a hot dog skin; it’s tight. But surprisingly enough, after you dive it a while, particularly after the first five or six dives, you rattle around it like a pea in a can. I don’t know whether you compress or just get used to it, but there’s lots of room. Of course, the operator wears real thick wools. Not so much for warmth, although they’re important for warmth, but for spacing. Users space themselves inside with thick wools and with knee-pads, ankle pads, elbow pads, that sort of stuff. The padding acts like a kind of harness – like an airbag harness.
How do you pee?
How do you urinate in the suit?
You don’t. You just come back up to the boat and take a wizz.
Right. No pressure.
Of course, if you wanted to, some of our operators use what’s called a “watchman’s urinal”. It’s like a small oral nasal mask for your schlong with an attached bladder.
But of course you can just come back up to the boat.
That’s the thing that gets to me, and I should be more jaded than anyone else with respect to one atmosphere suits. When I see a guy go down to a thousand feet, work for five or six hours and then come back up, have a cup of coffee and a sandwich and talk about what movie he’s going to see that night, go back down to a thousand feet for another three or four hours, and then ride back with you to the hotel that night on the crew boat. I think that’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It absolutely blows me away. I mean, I’ve been involved in deep ambient-pressure diving all of my adult life. To me a thousand feet means eight long days—and that’s if you store at 800 feet/246 m and you do excursions.
Let me read you one of my favorite “perspectives”; a quote from Chris Lambertson. It’s from a UMS workshop held back in 1980, called “Techniques for Diving Deeper than 1500 Feet”. Lambertson wrote: “It requires longer to decompress from exposure to helium pressure of 1000 feet of sea water than to return from a lunar landing.”
It’s funny. NASA is having a lot of trouble developing an effective space suit joint to handle 15 pounds of pressure. They looked at our suit and said, “Jesus Christ, 500 pounds! You gotta be kidding.” And I said, “No, that’s what we’re doing.” They said, “Mind-boggling.” I said, “Yeah, but we think being 1,000 to 2,000 feet away from mission control is a big deal. You guys are on the moon! I guess it’s all relative.”
I’m sure that a decade or two from now, people will look back on deep ambient-pressure diving and say, “God, can you imagine that?” They will look at us like we were naked sponge divers working at 200 feet/60 m. “Can you believe it?” It’s incredible that it takes at least 8 days to come back from a 1000 feet/305 m. Somehow, that’s analogous in my mind to trying to fly by storming down a runway in your underwear and waving your arms up and down. It just doesn’t seem to be the right way to go.
I suppose that you heard Richard Pyle’s comment [Bishop Museum, HI: deep reef exploration] at the Rebreather Forum?
No, I didn’t.
Rich said that he always viewed “open circuit” as just a stop-gap until he got his rebreather, and now, after spending a couple of days with you up in Vancouver, he realizes that rebreathers are probably just another stop gap until he gets his shallow water NEWTSUIT.
Think hard! [Nuytten smiles].
It’s just beginning.
I hate to say it because I make my living at these things, but the NEWTSUIT is really just a transient, a flash in the pan. No question about it. Of course, conceptually, it’s a milestone on the progress chart of atmospheric diving systems just like the old German Neufeldt and Kuhnke suits of the 20s, the Galeazzi suit and of course the JIM and the WASP. But I’m afraid that the NEWTSUIT will go the way of all flesh and better versions —much lighter, much safer, much faster— will be built. And I hope that I’m one of the guys who builds them. I also hope, and my board of directors hates to hear this, but I hope that other people will build them too and that there will be a lot of competition and a lot of neat ideas. I learned a long time ago that if you have what amounts to a serious breakthrough in technology you have to share it. That’s the only way you’re ever going to see what it finally becomes.
I understand that Andre Galerne [founder of International Underwater Contractors and past ADC president] once remarked that he thought that the deep ocean work of the future would be carried out by autonomous deep-diving submersibles?
It makes good sense to me. I can visualize a long-duration, deep-diving sub parked next to a well-head or a pipeline and an armored diver working at the end of a short umbilical. The sub would provide the power, lights, a tool base, lifting and large assembly handling capability, and transportation. It will be an artificial surface, in the same way that diving bells or lockout subs have been in the past, but in this case, it will be a true surface because it’s at one atmosphere. Think about the space shuttle and the space-suited workers outside and you’ll understand what I see.