Then there’s Graham Hawkes, the founder of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, a company that designs aircraft-like submersibles. The English-born engineer (and Earle’s ex-husband) sums up the situation a little more brashly. “In a couple of centuries they’ll finally realize that this is an ocean planet, and there will be a great era of ocean exploration,” he says. “They’re going to build a great craft, go down to the seafloor, and they’ll find a little plaque. It will say, ‘Hawkes was here.’ ”
Hawkes’s goal is to open the deep seas to anyone able to pay a few million dollars for a small sub. His model, both in a business and engineering sense, is the private jet. His submersible designs have fixed wings and sleek, elongated fuselages, like those on an aircraft. The pilot sits in a small, pressure-resistant hull. Everything else, including the motors, electronics and the lightweight foam that buoys the vehicle, is housed outside the hulls in the fuselages, saving weight. The sub is positively buoyant—lighter than the water it travels through. Its wings are inverted, and electric thrusters keep the craft from floating to the surface. Just as an airplane needs upward thrust to lift off, Hawkes’s subs use downward thrust to descend.
Hawkes recently completed a shallow-water submersible, the 4,000-pound Super Falcon (price tag: $1.5 million), which can reach 1,000 feet and uses the flying-craft design. But building a lightweight deep-sea sub is a much bigger challenge. Hawkes says he has solved this problem with tough ceramic-metal composites and a pressure-resistant lithium-ion battery system.
Four years ago, he started building a deep-sea vehicle, the 8,000-pound Challenger, for adventurer Steve Fossett, who planned to dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. During pressure tests at Penn State University’s Applied Research Lab, the vehicle’s glass viewing sphere cracked as a result of what Hawkes calls a manufacturing flaw with a machined titanium part adjacent to the sphere.
After Fossett’s death in a private-plane crash in 2007, Hawkes stopped working on the Challenger (Fossett’s widow now owns the original machine) and turned his attention to the Super Falcon. With that vehicle now on the market, Hawkes’s goal is to apply what he learned on the Challenger project to create a new commercial sub, called Deep Flight II, that will move freely through the ocean at any depth. The Challenger used a drop-weight system similar to the Alvin’s to assist its descent. Deep Flight II will ideally replace the weights with a stronger lithium-polymer battery, so its thrusters can propel it down, making it more nimble in the water.
Even if Hawkes builds his vehicles in the next two years, as he hopes to, such crafts would probably be too small to haul a lot of scientific instruments. The Alvin is clunky, but it can carry many video cameras and monitors in its viewing hull. The negligible “trunk space” on his vehicles contributes to the idea aired in some scientific circles that Hawkes makes stunt subs. Hawkes says those criticisms are based on outdated notions. Instruments like cameras are becoming smaller and more efficient, he points out, and Deep Flight II subs will have robotic arms.
Whatever criticism it receives, a craft like Hawkes’s would be a huge boon to marine biologists, who are restricted to using vehicles like Alvin for mostly immobile observation. Deep Flight II would allow scientists to rove freely. “Alvin is a wonderful vehicle for exploring the deep seafloor,” says Bruce Robison, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, “but it can’t work effectively in that middle depth where most of the animals are. We haven’t had many vehicles capable of working as freely in the ocean as the animals that live there.”
Ultimately, there’s room for a mix of government-sponsored research vessels and private explorers in craft like Hawkes’s charting new underwater territory. After all, there’s a lot of area to cover. “The oceans make up two thirds of the planet, and they’re unexplored,” Hawkes says. “We want to find out what we don’t know.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.