Diving Technology Brings Blue Economy Innovation from Ocean State to Desert


Diver Brandon Carr interfaces with an underwater robot outside of Ocean Space Habitat during a recent test of the technology in an Arizona ‘ocean.’ (Jona Silvertein)

A diving science and technology exercise held earlier this month some 2,580 miles away successfully demonstrated a concept born in Rhode Island about five years ago.

The “underwater camping” project took place within the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 facility, which is best known for its enclosed environments for earth science research and for studying human performance within such environments.

Within the Biosphere is an “ocean,” which for three years has been utilized as a test site to advance lightweight, portable underwater tent technology. The technology’s co-inventors, Michael Lombardi of Middletown-based Lombardi Undersea LLC and Winslow Burleson of the University of Arizona, were awarded a patent for the technology in 2018 entitled “Portable Inflatable Habitat with Modular Payload, System and Method.”

The patent was licensed to Rhode Island-based Subsalve USA, a leader in engineered inflatables for underwater applications.

The “tent” — or “underwater habitat” — provides a relatively dry and protected space for divers to enter, remove their equipment, and carry out any number of tasks before returning to the surface.

One of the first tests of the Ocean Space Habitat system was held in October 2018 off the coast of Portsmouth. During that test, the habitat was deployed in Gull Cove, where Lombardi and Burleson entered the system and rehearsed procedures for habitat ingress/egress, atmospheric management using the embedded life-support technology, and troubleshot protocols for system deployment and recovery.

“Underwater habitation and the quest to live beneath the sea has been a dream for over half a century, though is met with very complex challenges — the reality of human physiology and expense make it a difficult proposition,” Lombardi said. “Techniques in saturation diving, where humans live under pressure for weeks or longer, are well established and used in the offshore oil and gas industries via mobile diving saturation vessels. By contrast, marine science has sporadically made use of fixed permanent habitats resting on the seafloor. Both rely on high operational costs and heavy infrastructure.”

Undersea habitation was a prominent endeavor in the 1960s and ’70s, fueled by emerging needs for deep oilfield work and interests in space exploration, according to Lombardi. He said these efforts ignited interests to advance capabilities for marine science.

“Important work has been done, however the cost and complexity of permanent habitats for science outweigh the immediately tangible benefits, leaving only slow-going progress,” said the Barrington, R.I., resident, who graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2000 with a degree in marine biology.

But during the past two decades, he noted, techniques in “technical diving,” typically for sport, have made dive excursions in excess of five hours using only personal life support fairly routine.

“We’ve leveraged technology and techniques from that sector to afford a new lightweight mode of intervention, akin to camping, where we’ve demonstrated these five hours can be extended to a day or more all without the massive infrastructure of the current paradigm,” Lombardi said.

During the recent tests at Biosphere 2, the Ocean Space Habitat system was deployed by a small team, then Burleson entered the habitat using life support carried independently, and stayed overnight. The total cumulative time spent underwater by Burleson, along with safety divers, was 26 hours.

“I was able to get comfortable enough to sleep through the night and be reliant on the ultra portable self-contained life systems engineered for the habitat,” Burleson said. “This capability results in … less expense than conventional fixed habitats and saturation diving, and exposes a new cross section in human intervention that might make advances in marine sciences possible.”

In today’s marine science paradigm, researchers must be mobile, visiting multiple sites even within a single field mission, according to Lombardi.

“The underwater value is analogous to a backpacking excursion; we certainly learn more from an overnight in the environment than a short walk [scuba] in the park,” he said. “When coupling our portable habitat technology with modern rebreather (gas recycling) apparatus, spending up to a few days underwater is well within reach. Within this model, an environment can be responsibly studied, but not beat up and destroyed by heavy dive traffic over lengthy periods of time.”

During the recent Biosphere 2 mission, Northeastern University’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center partnered with the project. Burleson and Lombardi collected marine organism tissue samples that have been isolated within Biosphere 2’s ocean for 30 years, and processed them within the Ocean Space Habitat to demonstrate use as a viable science station.

The Ocean Space Habitat program has received support from Subsalve USA, New York University, the University of Arizona, Lombardi Undersea LLC, Ocean Opportunity Inc., the National Geographic Society’s Waitt Grants Program, and the Discovery Channel.

To watch a video of the recent test in Arizona, click here (part 1) and here (part 2).


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