In Overmatched, we take a close look at the science and technology at the heart of the defense industry—the world of soldiers and spies.
VLADIMIR PLETSER stands in front of an eclectic audience—a group of people attending the Analog Astronaut Conference in Arizona. Analog astronauts are folks who simulate the lives of spacefarers, for science, while remaining on Earth. For days or weeks or months, they inhabit and experiment in facilities that mimic cosmic conditions, living as quasi-astronauts. Sometimes those facilities are settlements in the Utah desert that look like the Red Planet, such as the Mars Desert Research Station, run by the nonprofit Mars Society; others are mocked-up astro-habitats inside NASA centers, like the Human Exploration Research Analog at Johnson Space Center.
But Pletser, on this Saturday in May, is here to discuss a new analog facility courtesy of Blue Abyss, a company where he serves as space operations training director. That’s an appropriate position, as he’s managed microgravity research for the European Space Agency, he’s worked in support of China’s space station, and he is an astronaut candidate for Belgium.
Blue Abyss, a company focused on enabling research, training, and testing in extreme environments, is planning to build the second-deepest pools in the world. (The deepest pool is in Dubai, built for recreation and filming.) The proposed bodies of water will be 160 feet deep and about 130 to 160 feet wide. They’ll be the largest pools in the world by volume. Giant bodies of water like these will be useful to astronauts who want to practice in an environment analogous to space—an oxygen-deprived place with neutral buoyancy. They’re also of interest to deep-sea divers and people in the offshore energy sector. Then there are operators in the defense industry who find themselves in the ocean for tasks like reconnaissance, search and rescue, and mine hunting. Blue Abyss aims to serve them all.
The pools will be built in Cornwall, England, and Brook Park, Ohio, near Cleveland, if all goes according to plan. And they won’t just be super-size swimming holes. They will have multiple underwater levels for research and provide enough room for big instruments and vehicles to enter the buildings and the water.
“We envisage that the size and flexibility of our pools will enable some of the more complex planetary [extravehicular activity] that will be undertaken in the future on the moon and Mars to be practiced here on Earth, something that is still quite difficult to conduct in the neutral buoyancy pools that exist today, which weren’t developed with this in mind,” says John Vickers, Blue Abyss’ CEO. The facility will also be able to mimic the tides and currents of the real world and the varied lighting conditions people might find in the ocean or outer space. Specific chambers will simulate the pressure found at depths of up to thousands of meters.
While Blue Abyss’ plans for facilities are not limited to big pools, they will be the centerpieces. Pools like these are not a totally unique idea in the astronaut world; NASA has a similar aqueous facility, called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, in Houston—but it goes down only 40 feet. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, hosts its own Hydro Lab, of similar depth. China’s Neutral Buoyancy Facility in Beijing and the European Space Agency’s in Germany both dip down 33 feet. Blue Abyss’ pools will be bigger, and perhaps better able to accommodate the needs of future astronauts, who will likely be doing complex missions outside their spacecraft.
Analog oceans aren’t exactly a new idea in the defense sector either; the US Navy, for instance, has an “indoor ocean” in Maryland, called the Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin. It is 35 feet deep at its lowest point and is used to test scale models of subs. But existing facilities weren’t necessarily made for the seagoing vehicles of today, which are often autonomous, drone-like, or both.
If they succeed, Blue Abyss’ projects will provide access via the private sector to the same types of facilities that are today, in some cases, run by governments. The pools will be for humans (be they space explorers or divers or small-craft conductors) and robots (be they remotely operated vehicles or autonomous underwater vehicles). “Centers will provide training, certification, and technology demonstration, ensuring that divers, operators, and other underwater professionals have the skills and knowledge to operate safely and effectively in challenging circumstances,” says Vickers.
Or at least, that’s the idea. “We’re still in the phase of trying to find funding,” Pletser tells those at the conference. “So the project that we have in England, in Cornwall, is going much slower than the one that we have here in the States.”
The Cleveland area—an aerospace hub—has been supportive of the venture, says Vickers, but the company has had a harder time in its home territory of England, the original proposed site. “Brexit, the pandemic, and a lack of sufficient vision within parts of government have meant that what should have been the world’s first site may now come second,” he says.
It likely isn’t the interest of the analog astronauts gathered to hear Pletser speak that makes the general idea feasible, regardless of what country the pools are constructed in. After all, the world doesn’t have that many astronauts to train.
But Blue Abyss is hoping to attract a much larger potential pool of people, and of money, from other contexts. Those in the offshore energy sector could practice working with cables and pipes, inspecting the foundations of wind turbines, and checking out vessels—without the serious dangers that come with conducting operations in the open ocean, where unpredictable currents, sea creatures, and other X factors can provide potentially deadly complications. Divers could train regardless of the weather. Scientists could test undersea research tools before sending them into an actual oceanic abyss. And makers of submersibles could test their craft and practice tricky maneuvers in a controlled environment. “So we not only address the space sector, but also the marine sector,” says Pletser.
Importantly, that marine sector includes the defense field, where contractors help navies and coast guards make sense of the ocean’s mysteries.
One contractor that does such military work is General Dynamics. “We have a number of programs of record with the US Navy,” says Michael Guay, director for autonomous undersea systems. (A subsidiary, General Dynamics Electric Boat, makes nuclear subs for the Navy.) One of General Dynamics’ programs, Knifefish, has created a vehicle that can detect, classify, and identify mines placed underwater. Similar autonomous vehicles are also useful to the military for surveillance, reconnaissance, and even anti-submarine warfare.
Autonomous vehicles can also do hydrographic surveys. Such vehicles, which use sensors to measure aspects of the water like turbidity, salinity, and fluorescence, are useful for exploring for new oil and gas drilling sites and doing scientific assessments of the oceanic environment.
General Dynamics has its own “full-ocean-depth-simulating pressure test tank,” says Guay, and its tanks can test full vehicles or just their parts. One of its facilities is in Quincy, Massachusetts, “So we have rapid access to Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay,” he says.
Another company, called SEAmagine, sells small submarines and submersible boats—specifically those that require human drivers, which has been going out of fashion. “We didn’t believe that we were going to know our oceans by simply putting cameras and robots in the water,” says Charles Kohnen, SEAMagine’s co-founder. “Somehow the human element has to remain for us to understand.”
Today, SEAmagine, based in California, offers its craft to tourists, scientific researchers, yacht operators, and the defense sector. Its manned marine craft are specifically of interest to coast guards, which use them for search and rescue. Argentina’s, for instance, uses a SEAmagine vehicle to recover bodies from the ultra-deep water in the mountainous country. “They have these lakes that are 500 meters deep in the Andes,” says Kohnen. “And they’re very full of tourists because it’s beautiful. There’s a lot of tourists, and then lots of accidents.” These diminutive subs can ride on trailers on highways and be backed into the water like regular boats—not the case for your typical submersible.
But before either company does any of that fieldwork, its vehicles have to undergo rigorous testing. “The first, most important part of testing before you go in the ocean is going to be the pressure testing of the hull,” says Kohnen.
That happens in pressure chambers, like the ones Blue Abyss’ facilities will include. “There aren’t that many in the world that are large enough and deep enough,” says Kohnen. Today, SEAmagine uses a variety of different chambers in the US to test its hulls and other components, but Kohnen says there’s room for more. “I’d like to see more testing facilities that can do the under-pressure testing,” he says. “As you build more of a blue economy for all these marine industries, the world could use some more labs.”
Blue Abyss hopes its facilities will be useful in certifying early-stage technology—the kind of tech that companies may not want to experiment with in the actual sea—validating and demonstrating sensors and components and autonomous capabilities at work in their relevant environments. That way, they can know that the technology either works or needs a tweak, and then they can demonstrate to agencies or customers that the parts and systems are ready.
And analog astronauts may be eager to take the plunge, too.
Read more PopSci+ stories.