British billionaire Sir Richard Branson announced a radical quest this week to explore the deepest points of the world’s five oceans. Key to achieving his dream is his company's Virgin Oceanic submarine — a one-man submersible that can dive to depths of 37,000 feet (7 miles).
About the length of a kayak and weighing in at 8,000 pounds, the Virgin Oceanic underwater vehicle is made of a carbon fiber and titanium composite that can withstand 1,000 atmospheres of pressure, or 8 tons per square inch.
The craft glides along underwater using fin-like structures called hydroplanes and thrusters and is equipped with cameras for capturing high-definition photos and video as well as environmental sensors and biological sampling tools.
Designed by Graham Hawkes initially for adventurer Steven Fossett and previously called DeepFlight Challenger, the sub will be the second manned craft to travel to the hadal zone — 19,685 feet (6,000 meters) below the sea surface.
The first was the Bathyscaphe Trieste, which carried U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific on Jan. 23, 1960. Since then, no human has ventured again to such depths, leaving this vast stretch of our planet relatively unexplored.
"If you look at the Bathyscaphe Trieste you’ll come to appreciate that it was a relatively grand undertaking to get humans into such an extreme environment," said Andy Bowen, director of National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).
The greatest obstacle to launching another deep-sea expedition is cost, Bowen said.
"The efforts presently under way will hopefully be successful, and in doing so demonstrate that a lower-cost method for human exploration with submersibles exists," he added.
If the Virgin Oceanic craft is successful, it could surpass the achievements of the Bathyscaphe Trieste. That 1960s vehicle only traveled up and down a vertical column of water, but Branson's submersible is much more flexible.
"Rather than sink up and down in the water column, our subs now have the range, speed and maneuverability to access the three-dimensional space of the oceans," Hawkes told TechNewsDaily.
For all of its impressive tech specs, the Virgin Oceanic was designed to be a low-cost craft, and its success could help open up the ocean depths to many more scientists and explorers, which could be a game-changer for traveling to deep parts of the ocean.
Several factors play into this low cost.
"To begin with, we've been supported by Autodesk" — a company that makes 3-D engineering software — "for the last 10-plus years, and they have provided us with very powerful software, which has allowed us to reduce our engineering team to just three people," said Karen Hawkes of Hawkes Ocean Technologies. Hawkes Ocean Technologies helped to design the Virgin Oceanic.
"This software allows us to take an idea in Graham's head, design it on the computer, send the pieces out for machining, and they come back for final assembly — and the whole things works."
Another key to the sub's low cost is that it is only about 1/15th the weight of a typical submersible vehicle. That translates into less material and lower expense, Hawkes said.
"Our DeepFlight submersibles are as different from conventional subs as balloons differ to airplanes," Hawkes said.
"Very simply, we have made the same transition sub-sea that the Wright Brothers did in air, transitioning from ballooning to fixed-wing aircraft."