The Future of Ocean Exploration Is in Our ‘Hands’

An early 20th century German ADS designed for Navy use and on display at the Man in the Sea Museum, United States Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) Panama City, Florida. Note the primitive jaw-like appurtances used for the 'hands'. Photo of Bhargav Gajjar, courtesy Vishwa Robotics.

Throughout the history of human intervention beneath the sea, divers have struggled with making the best use of a human’s most important tool: the hand.

In the shallows, thick neoprene gloves are used for warmth, and the diver must quickly learn how to adapt to perform fine motor tasks. Without this protection, the cold cripples the ability to perform at all. At depth, the hydrostatic pressure crushes the insulating rubber, leaving the gloves (and the cold hands) ineffective.

Give ‘em a Hand

For centuries, when humans have ventured to depths beyond the norm for more conventional “wet diving,” atmospheric diving suits (ADS) have provided a barrier of protection from pressure, and their “hand pods” have encapsulated and replaced divers’ hands. However, these hand pods consist of just a set of crablike pincers, leaving many everyday tasks and the use of many tools outside the reach of even the most skilled ADS pilots.

In writing this piece, I came to the realization that it has been more than two years since my first National Geographic blog post on the subject of ADS for science, with a piece entitled “Hand in Hand.” It is this very subject—enabling the human hand to routinely work freely at extreme depths—that is the key to furthering the exploration of the deep ocean for and by humans.

Bhargav Gajjar poses with an early 20th-century German ADS designed for Navy use and on display at the Man in the Sea Museum, United States Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) Panama City, Florida. Note the primitive jaw-like appurtances used for the “hands.” (Photo Courtesy Vishwa Robotics)

Just last year, during preparations for two deep-water scientific missions utilizing ADS, participants arrived at an overwhelming consensus. First was that bringing the “human element” into these novel environments is the principle value that ADS affords. Placing humans —> Read More

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