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This year's expedition to the Antikythera shipwreck marks the experimental debut of a new robotic diving apparatus for use in marine archaeology—the Exosuit. Theotokis Theodoulou of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Greece, and co-director of the Antikythera shipwreck expedition, tries out the Exosuit, which maintains atmospheric pressure inside the suit. The Exosuit allows divers to descend to 1,000 feet, far beyond the reach of SCUBA diving. (Alex DeCiccio ©Return to Antikythera, 2014) [ Hide caption ]

The Exosuit Comes Aboard

Cutting-edge diving apparatus gets first archaeological mission

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One of the ocean’s least studied places is actually the realm between 200 and 500 feet deep. This zone has resisted exploration because it’s too deep for SCUBA and not deep enough to warrant the expense of using submarines and underwater robots.

Now a new technology, called the Exosuit, can bridge that gap. Built by Nuytco Research Ltd., the Exosuit is a hard-cased relative of the spacesuit. It allows divers to go 1,000 feet deep and, if necessary, remain there for up to 50 hours, said Ed O’Brien, the dive safety officer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

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Illustration courtesy of Nuytco Research
Interactive by Eric S. Taylor, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The suit is pressurized to remain at one atmosphere, the pressure at sea level, so wearers do not need to decompress. (During decompression, divers rise slowly to the surface—which often takes longer than the working part of the dive itself—to slowly release potentially lethal gas bubbles from their bloodstreams). The suit is equipped with thrusters, lights, cameras, and other high-tech gizmos. It requires just two days of training, as opposed to other dive technologies that can take weeks to learn.

So what’s it like wearing an Exosuit? “Its kind of like riding a unicycle,” O’Brien said. Though it looks like divers are standing, they actually sit as though on a bicycle seat. “On your right foot, there’s a pedal. Down is forward. Back is reverse,” he said.  Press on your instep and it turns you counterclockwise. On the left foot, pushing forward will cause you to fall in the water column, “and back would shoot you up,” he said. “You’re just kind-of buzzing around like Buzz Lightyear.”

The joints, like the elbows, are articulated to make maneuvering easier than in similar systems. “This is the genius of the whole suit,” O’Brien said. “It took Phil Newton [the designer of the Exosuit] seven years of trial and error to get it right.”

Exosuit-like technology has traditionally been used only for commercial divers, but now it is making its way into the science realm. On loan from J.F. White Contracting Co.— which bought the suit to investigate New York City’s aqueduct system for drinking water—the Exosuit next week will see its debut in maritime archaeology, excavating the richest known ancient shipwreck with a multinational research team that includes the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities (EUA) of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, The Hellenic Navy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in the United States, and the Australian Centre for Marine Robotics. [See High-Tech Dives to an Ancient Shipwreck.]

Ten Exosuit “pilots” will be on site at the wreck, whose remnants are located in up to 500 feet of water. Many of these pilots, including two of the team’s archaeologists, Brendan Foley of WHOI and Theotokis Theodoulou of the EUA, trained for certification in the suit at WHOI in the spring of 2014.

O’Brien said the Exosuit should be a boon for marine archaeologists by giving them ability to investigate and excavate undersea wrecks in person. O’Brien told the tale of him and Theodoulou diving on the site of a Greek wreck.

“Now to me, there was just rubble everywhere,” O’Brien said. But something caught Theodoulou’s eye—an object resembling the handle of a teacup.  The object turned out to be Minoan, dating back as far as 1800 B.C.  “This man has studied this stuff and he picks it out like Waldo in a Where’s Waldo book. It takes years of studying to notice that.”

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