Developing underwater habitat to further research, diver safety

“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.” – Jaques Cousteau, Time Magazine March 28, 1960

Researchers and divers alike continually strive for pushing the boundaries of maximum dive times – for longer, more thorough glimpses of the deep.

Complimenting the industry’s entire dive equipment locker are undersea habitats – starting with Ed Link’s Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling (SPID) in 1960 – looking to provide emergency shelter in case of a deep water injury (reads: critically injured via rapid decompression sickness.)

A newly developed undersea habitat is infusing its forebears with modern technology and the strategic incorporation of atmospheric management. The Ocean Space Habitat – recently designed by National Geographic explorer Michael Lombardi and New York University associate professor Winslow Burleson – furthers the future of underwater research.

The three fully-functioning prototypes are, respectively: 5 feet tall by 5 feet in diameter designed for 3 people; another is 4.5-feet tall by 2 feet wide by 4 feet long designed for 2 people; and other is a 43 inch sphere for one person. It’s shape allows it to fit mission requirements, from furthering research to protracted underwater survival.

The Ocean Space Habitat developed by National Geographic explorer Michael Lombardi and New York University associate professor Winslow Burleson is furthering diving and undersea research. PHOTO BY MICHAEL LOMBARDI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In an interview with States of Life, Lombardi said it’s entirely feasible this format of inflatable structure to include a science lab or separate living quarters. As re-breathing apparatus technology has developed to become commonplace, it can be adapted for use in a structure.

“A safe and reliably breathable atmosphere is not outside the realm of feasibility for the average experienced diver,” Lombardi said. “ It also provides a reasonably controlled space to conduct an in-water recompression (IWR) treatment.”

In-water recompression is a controversial topic, Lombardi said, mostly due to the risks of placing an already injured diver back underwater.

It could be feasible to be placed under pressure but not risk drowning should the injured diver suffer a seizure during oxygen therapy in the new habitat.

“There are several other uses – with some crafty dive planning, it could be possible to spend 8 hours (a work shift) at a depth of say 60 feet with a short break in a shallow habitat for lunch/rest, and then wrapping up the day with no required decompression,” Lombardi said. “By contrast, the typical air diving regimen provides for only 60 minutes at 60 feet, according to Navy dive tables.”

Tests on the habitat prototypes have been ongoing since February, with the team making incremental improvements to the overall configuration – both for deployment strategies and accommodating various activities within the habitat, according to Lombardi. The habitat’s life support package has also “markedly improved in the past year.”

Lombardi said future work will look to adjust the overall configuration – both for development strategies and accommodating various activities within the habitat.

Research would include simple observations; preserving DNA under pressure before surfacing; and establishing microbial cultures under pressure or simple tasks.

“We are actively discussing such possibilities with the science community, and would welcome any additional inquiries from interested scientists,” Lombardi said.

Michael Lombardi will look for another round of deep exploration work in the Bahamas, his “home away from home” to follow up on recent discoveries made by colleagues in the field of natural products – new medicines from the sea. He spends “almost every day underwater here in Rhode Island.” He has worked in Antarctica, Belize, Cayman Islands, Greece, Hong Kong and throughout New England.

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