Small, manned submersibles are typically seen attached to mega-yachts, or in the headlines making extreme dives to the deepest spots in the oceans. Now a Seattle company is building a new generation of underwater vehicles to charter to a range of commercial, industrial, and government customers in the new ocean economy.
OceanGate is unveiling Cyclops 1, a five-person submersible the company has retrofitted with simpler controls, creature comforts, and other technologies for streamlined operations, at a public event later this week. It will be followed by Cyclops 2, a similar-sized vessel with a carbon fiber hull capable of diving to 3,000 meters.
The company, which grew out of engineer and entrepreneur Stockton Rush‘s personal fascination with the deep, has benefited from a unique partnership with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, a center of marine engineering and a critical piece of the Pacific Northwest’s ocean innovation ecosystem.
It’s tempting to write off OceanGate as an esoteric hobby masquerading as a business. But the oceans are the focus of billions of dollars of investment by the likes of pharmaceutical companies, renewable energy developers, and the longtime offshore behemoth, oil and gas producers.
Rush saw the opportunity for a sub charter company after he tried to rent a submersible himself. A scuba diver since age 14, but always in warm water, Rush took a cold-water diving class in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 2003. Through the 43-degree water he saw a giant octopus and crabs racing into a trap. Rush recalls thinking, “This is really cool. I can’t stand it.”
Wanting to continue his cold-water undersea explorations but in greater comfort, Rush contacted a source in Vancouver who said online he had a sub to rent. The man didn’t actually have any to rent. Instead, he wanted to sell Rush a sub sitting in an aircraft hangar in Santa Rosa, CA. Rush flew down to see it and made a low-ball offer in spite of himself. It was accepted.
Rush is a more-than-capable builder and operator of complex vehicles. He was a precocious aviator—flying DC-8s between the Arabian Peninsula and Europe during summers away from Princeton—before becoming a flight test engineer on the F-15 program at McDonnell Douglas. He later built a Glasair III experimental aircraft himself. On the Kittredge K-350 sub he bought, he updated the controls, life support, and other pieces, and dove it in 2006. It is capable of diving to 350 feet.
For some within Rush’s circle of wealthy elites, manned submersibles are a status symbol. The deeper they go, the better. A friend told Rush about a sub built for the late tycoon-adventurer Steve Fossett “that will go to the bottom of the Marianna Trench,” Rush says.
“Some of us get this disease,” Rush says. “You see really cool stuff and you go a little deeper and you see even cooler stuff… Particularly when you go through the deep scattering layer, where marine life doesn’t migrate to the surface, it gets even weirder.”
As his obsession grew, Rush learned more about the very small world of manned submersibles and recognized how little the world knows about the oceans—and how much money is being invested there.
New Ocean Economy
Rush co-founded OceanGate in 2009 with Guillermo Söhnlein, another entrepreneur focused on commercial opportunities in space and the oceans, with the aim of operating subs for charter to customers including adventure tourism operators, media, academic and commercial researchers, government and military contractors, and oil and gas producers.
Enormous sums are being invested in the oceans for communications, natural resources extraction, pharmaceutical research, and more, Rush says.
“It’s hundreds of billions of dollars,” he says. “The folks who typically wonder how you could make money in manned subs are the same ones who really don’t know a lot about what’s happening in the ocean, which is one of the reasons I got into it. I got into it for a passion, but I saw that there’s this huge business potential.”
This new ocean economy is the backdrop of a recent Microsoft video depicting the future of productivity, which centers on education, research, and commerce in the oceans. At the end, a researcher deploys a small fleet of aquatic drones to measure production in a kelp farm.
It raises a question Rush encounters frequently, as do proponents of manned spaceflight. Isn’t all of this better done by robots or remotely operated vehicles? Rush acknowledges the huge role these technologies play, but says there are scenarios where humans are necessary.
“People are a cost-effective solution for situations that are un-forecasted,” he says.
To that end, OceanGate is designing its subs to be more comfortable, easier to use, and adaptable to a wide range of commercial and research scenarios including surveying, data collection, film production, and testing underwater equipment.
The interior spaces are maximized for things like filming and adventure tourism. Modern, intuitive control systems and high-resolution sonar allow pilots to focus on avoiding fishing lines and other obstacles that can entangle a sub. And OceanGate’s forthcoming Cyclops 2 will have a seven-inch-thick carbon fiber hull—a first use of the material for a manned submersible, Rush says—allowing it to dive as deep as 3,000 meters. A third Cyclops is planned for depths as great as 6,000 meters.
“Our goal is to get 3 to 5 percent of the remotely operated vehicle market, which is a $1.5 billion market, moving on to $2 billion,” Rush says, adding that it will be easier to compete for jobs at greater depths.
The company aims to equal or beat remotely operated vehicle prices by reducing costs to build and deploy its subs, and maximizing their use. It says the standard commercial rate, including crew provided by OceanGate and supplies, will be about $15,000 a day. Prices will change based on the nature, duration, and location of the charter.
Keeping operations costs low is a particular area of focus for OceanGate. “A lot of subs are expensive because they require expensive ships,” Rush says. “Our fundamental mantra was about mobility—keeping mobile and being able to use what’s called ships of opportunity. Now you can keep your costs variable and you can respond to customer needs in different locations.”
The submersibles—distinguished from submarines, which don’t need support vessels—are launched and recovered by a sinking barge that can be towed out to the dive area. Other submersibles require ships with a heavy crane to pluck them from the water.
To demonstrate its mobility, OceanGate took its Antipodes sub on dives in the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic in less than 30 days in June 2013.
OceanGate is a “sizeable” undertaking, Rush says when describing the cost of developing the experience and technology necessary for such a business. Rush comes from a wealthy family and is an active angel investor and business leader.
He took over as CEO of OceanGate about three years ago (co-founder Söhnlein left the company) and brought in outside investors at that time, “mostly business associates of mine,” he says. The company declines to disclose its total investment, but says “the development of Cyclops has been at a fraction of the cost of any other deep submersible built.”
Working with APL
One way the company has saved money in development is through a novel collaboration with the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), that, like Rush, was looking for a sub to rent. It’s an interesting model of how academic researchers and practitioners can work with a startup to push the state of the art.
In summer of 2010, Rush was approached by the APL, which is in its eighth decade of research focusing on acoustics and oceanography for the Navy. The lab was evaluating sonar from BlueView Technologies, a Seattle company where Rush was on the board of directors until its 2012 acquisition by a Teledyne Technologies subsidiary. The APL had a contract with the Navy to test sonar systems that can detect much smaller objects, and in greater detail, than conventional systems. It needed small, nimble targets for the sonar to find, says APL principal engineer Dave Dyer. Rush’s first sub, the K-350 named Suds—it’s white, like the head of a beer, though it was yellow when he bought it—was a perfect fit. Over several months, he worked with the APL team in the waters of Lake Washington and Puget Sound, later using other OceanGate subs as well.
“They’d ask me to turn, evade them, sit on the bottom to see if they could pick me out of the mud,” Rush says.
Dyer says it would have been difficult to perform the tests using a towed target or an autonomous vehicle. “There are times that it just make sense to have a human in the loop,” Dyer says, making the broader case for manned submersibles. “If we had an issue, we just radioed down and told him what we were looking for. You didn’t have to work out a programming language to get it to do that.”
Having become familiar with the APL, Rush discussed OceanGate’s plan to build a deep-diving submersible with Bob Miyamoto, who heads the lab’s of defense and industry programs. Rush was struggling with how to find the needed engineering expertise “without having to hire people and then lay them off when you’re done using them,” Dyer says. Miyamoto suggested a novel contract engineering arrangement with OceanGate that would see APL staff work on the subs as needed—with the lab billing OceanGate for their hours—and returning to their lab work when they were done.
The engineers don’t have to go far. OceanGate is one of a handful of companies housed in the Collaboratory, APL’s space for industry-academic partnerships inside an angular building tucked under the University Bridge, on the waters of Portage Bay.
Dyer says the lab has done contract work for private companies in the past, but typically through tightly defined contracts, not the open-ended arrangement it has with OceanGate. The contract “basically said, OceanGate wants to do this manned submersible that goes to 6,000 meters, and APL will provide those engineering services as needed by OceanGate,” Dyer says. Since the contract began in 2013, OceanGate has paid APL for “thousands of hours” of work, the company says.
“The university had a little bit of struggle grasping it because it was not a defined thing,” Dyer says. “How do we know when it’s over? How do we know when to bill and stuff like that? It’s been a learning process for both of us over the past two or three years, but I think it actually works out well now to where we can ebb and flow with the needs of OceanGate, in a pretty quick-response timeframe.”
Dyer says other companies are interested in a similar arrangement, and for good reason. The lab is stacked deep with hundreds of scientists and engineers working at the frontiers of everything from medical devices to polar science to remote sensing. It’s also a major producer of intellectual property, with six patents issued and 22 commercialization deals done in the last fiscal year alone.
Dyer says the APL is working with university administration to make the contract-engineering model more routine. “One of the drawbacks to the university is it can take a long time to get something through, especially on a big contract,” he says. “And companies a lot of times don’t have that luxury of waiting… So we’re trying to get it so it’s a much quicker moving organism.”
Inside the Subs
Behind a multi-use building at the Port of Everett, orbital sanders buzz against sailboat hulls. The smell of fiberglass gel coat wafts from a nondescript door. Behind it sits part of the OceanGate fleet: Antipodes, and Cyclops 1.
On a recent visit, the fiberglass fairings for Cyclops 1 are curing under a plastic tent. After a few dives to test the orientation of the sub’s thrusters—the calculations by APL engineers were spot-on—the fairings’ shape was finalized. The fairings, which are external to the hull, are mainly for hydrodynamics (to reduce drag) and aesthetics. OceanGate plans to introduce Cyclops 1 with public viewing Wednesday morning at the Museum of History and Industry on Seattle’s Lake Union.
Rush says Cyclops 2 will be the first manned submersible to use carbon fiber for its hull. It will be seven inches thick to withstand the massive pressures deep below the surface. Many electronics systems such as sonar, motor controllers, and power conditioning equipment will be housed in glass spheres that sit outside the hull, connected by a single fiber-optic cable. That reduces the number of hull penetrations, which cause stress on the material.
The company aims to have the Cyclops 2 hull completed by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, OceanGate has Antipodes and Cyclops 1 to practice operations and demonstrate its capabilities ahead of planned commercial operations beginning next year. OceanGate expeditions to date include tracking sixgill sharks in Elliott Bay, lionfish off of south Florida, and shipwrecks around Puget Sound.
The two steel-hulled hubs sitting inside the Port of Everett warehouse are both cylindrical in shape with large, clear, forward-looking domes that afford an excellent view.
Inside, the differences are many. To turn on the lights of Antipodes, Rush goes through five steps. In Cyclops 1, a remote control activates LED strips behind perforated aluminum panels, casting a soft, daylight-like glow throughout the inside. The two vessels are roughly the same 53 inches inside diameter–similar to a Chevy Suburban—but Cyclops, thanks to the modern lighting, feels much less cramped.
The controls, too, are dramatically different. On Antipodes, OceanGate installed an industrial joystick to control the thrusters, replacing old-style individual controllers. It cost about $1,200. “I can hand it to anybody and you can drive the sub,” Rush says. The craft has a few dozen switches that must be memorized by everyone on board so they can be identified and operated in the dark.
On Cyclops 1, they’ve gone a step further, employing a wireless PlayStation game controller that costs about $29 and is immediately familiar to anyone who grew up playing video games. Indicator lights that are hard-wired into most subs have been replaced with an off-the-shelf wireless alarm system from GE. The goal is to keep as much of the sub’s systems wireless to make it easy to add components.
“If you design something simply, it should be intuitive so that when panic strikes, you do what seems natural,” Rush says. “A lack of familiarity, I think, is what makes people nervous.”
Both subs are outfitted with multi-beam sonar from BlueView, which Rush describes as a strategic partner. This technology is key to the safe operation of the subs, Rush says. The two biggest risks on subs, he says, are fires on board and entanglement. The multi-beam sonar is capable of making out subtle details and small objects such as fishing nets that can be difficult to see in the low-visibility waters of Puget Sound. “Nobody can believe we operate subs in this area, in high current,” Rush says. “But you can do it with these new sonar systems where what you see is what you get. There’s not an interpretive need and it’s extremely high detail.”
Comfort, too, is key. Not only does the lighting make the Cyclops sub feel more spacious, its layout allows space for crew members to take a nap or relieve themselves—in the back, between the oxygen tanks—on longer dives.
“It’s our belief that you do your best work when you’re comfortable,” Rush says. “Researchers aren’t thinking about the subject matter when their back hurts or they have to go to the bathroom or something else.”
Until now, comfort and simplicity have not been design principles for most submersibles, Rush says, mainly because very few of them are being made. The opportunity to bring the kind of design improvements made in other fields to subs captured Rush’s imagination.
“You can see the technology making its way from aviation, through cars, through your home, through your lawnmower. Everything’s going that way. But subs? Nothing. No innovation,” Rush says. “And yet it’s three planets’ worth of stuff”—the area covered by water on Earth is a little less than three times that of land—“and you think that maybe having a useful vehicle for going down there would be at least somewhere on the checklist.”
Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com.