Business

Exosuit lets undersea explorers go deeper

WHOI’s Edward O’Brien  used the Exosuit in Greece. He is beneath the team’s ship.
WHOI’s Edward O’Brien used the Exosuit in Greece. He is beneath the team’s ship.

Imagine Ironman designed by Jules Verne: That’s the Exosuit,
a 500-pound diving suit that sounds like a mashup of 19th-century science fiction and Hollywood special effects.

Capable of functioning 1,000 feet down and being underwater
for as long as 50 hours, the Exosuit saw its first deployment in October at the Antikythera Shipwreck, an archeological trove that
has yielded hundreds of works of art, including ancient bronze and marble statues.

The Exosuit, made by Nuytco Research Ltd. and owned by the Framingham construction company JF White Contracting Co., is on loan to a team of researchers and divers from Greece and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who are conducting the Antikythera exploration.

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It was still dark on the morning of the first dive, but the weather was clear when the team motored up to the HN Thetis, a Greek navy ship anchored off the cliffs of Antikythera that served as their base. The Exosuit hung from a frame on the deck. First in the suit was WHOI’s diving safety officer, Edward O’Brien.

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“The suit is halved. You get into it feet-first,” O’Brien said. “You slide a ‘bicycle seat’ underneath you. You’re not totally standing — your feet are just a little off [the control pedals]. It’s like a gas pedal. But it’s not just ‘forward.’ The pedal takes pressure along the instep, the outer step, backward, forward — the whole deal. It’s quite touchy.”

After more than an hour of safety checks, O’Brien climbed into the suit around 7 a.m. Once inside it, he could not just simply jump off the side or climb down the ship’s ladder. Instead, he waslowered into the water by the ship’s crane.

“This is the most dangerous and probably the most thrilling part of it: You’re lifted out of the cradle,” O’Brien said. He tucked his arms inside the torso of the suit in case a sudden movement — a gust of wind, for example — dashed him into the side of the ship.

“There were a couple of divers from the Hellenic SEAL team. They unhook you from the crane, and they kind of give you an ‘OK, you’re set to go.’ So then you sink on down,” O’Brien recalled. “The Aegean is so blue. And it’s deep water, so it’s like you’re in this deep blue void. The first time I dove over in the Aegean, over in Crete, it was very disarming for me, and I dive a lot. I wasn’t used to being in this clear void.

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“In some aspects, it was very unnerving. As a diver, your senses are very in tune with the environment,” O’Brien said. But in the Exosuit, “I felt like I was dry. Except for the loss of light when you go to depth, you don’t know how deep you are. You don’t feel the pressure on your ears, you don’t feel the cold and the thermals. The suit doesn’t know how deep it is. The suit doesn’t really care.”

O’Brien descended several hundred feet but remained above the sea floor, which was littered with hazardous fishing nets.

“I could see the ship’s anchorage, and a few fish going by,” he said. But as he sank deeper, the LED lights on the chest of the suit were not bright enough to allow him to see much else.

He went through a series of tests: beaming video from the Exosuit’s high-definition video camera through a fiber-optic tether, and switching out various tools using the suit’s pincer.

Back at the surface, a Hellenic Navy diver took the suit down. He said the government of Greece is considering using an Exosuit for naval purposes, and for the navy diver, being among the first Greeks to try it was a honor.

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“For him, it is the Neil Armstrong thing. It’s a matter of national pride. He was no sooner out of the suit — 20 minutes — his cellphone was ringing off the hook,” O’Brien said. In Greece, “the suit was everywhere. I just had dinner at a corner bistro in Athens the night before, and people knew who I was.”

The archeologists on the team did not get to use the suit during the trial, but O’Brien said it has great potential. With a larger air supply and the ability to communicate more clearly with the surface, he said, the Exosuit could let them make the best use of the brief periods of good weather around Antikythera.

“We’re not like the treasure hunters. An archeological site is not full of flash. It’s a bunch of people doing tedious work. In the next two years, the suit will most likely be used in the excavation. I think this is just the beginning.”

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.