Dive Technologies of the Future

Monday, May 30, 2011 14:34 | Filled in Dive Equipment, Dive Training

Relaxing after Another Day of Diving

Relaxing after Another Day of Diving

Divers, are social creatures even though there is a solitary experience when you are under water.   The seas envelop you and for the most part, your attention is focused on everything but your fellow divers.  The coral, the wrecks, the small critters, the big critters, they all work to overwhelm your senses.  All the while, you are floating in the blue water, weightless and free.  You cannot talk through your regulator with any recognizable phrases and your brain misguides you with the direction of sounds that you hear.

 

We make up for the solitude when we are together on the surface.  We chatter about everything from sports, to what we ate last night, to what our favorite dive is, to what we are going to eat tonight.  One topic that we often drift to, as we sit on the boat in between dives, is the history and future of diving.  Scuba diving is a relatively young sport and continues to evolve as technology and standards improve.


 

Digital photography has already  changed one aspect of diving.  In the past, someone would have to carry a protected camera underwater with 35mm film.  This meant the diver had 36 exposures and they only pressed that shutter button if they were pretty sure they had a good picture.  The equipment was costly, and bulky.  Today, the cost of digital cameras and their waterproof cases in conjunction with solid-state media that holds thousands of pictures on a single card, means that any diver can be an underwater photographer and produce excellent images.

 

Drawing of the Original Aqualung

Drawing of the Original Aqualung

In the 1940′s, Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau developed the first successful commercially and recreationally available SCUBA apparatus, the Aqualung.  The world changed after its introduction and we now have millions of divers certified via multiple agencies such as PADI, NAUI, SDI/TDI and SSI.  All of these agencies are members of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC) who sets the minimum standards that all of these agencies adhere to.  If a diver gets a Rescue certification from one agency, it is most likely that any other agency will honor that certification because of these standards.  Because of these standards, diving is a safe sport with a consistent level of training.  When I am buddied up with a diver with a Divemaster certification, I can set some baseline expectations on their capabilities.  They will have at least 40 logged dives, know CPR and first aid, and are competent swimmers.

 

I believe there are some technologies that are not widely used in the recreational diving community because of the lack of standards.   As these technologies mature, the competing proprietary technologies will converge and standardize, making it convenient for divers to use them irregardless of manufacturer or source.  All of the common equipment that we use today in the recreational diving world are standardized.  It does not matter if I use a regulator from ScubaPro, Aqualung or Apex.  The same can pretty much be said for Buoyancy Compensation Devices (BCDs).  They all have their inflator hose on the left side, and most use integrated weight pockets now.

 

Mike Coming Back from a Dive

Mike Coming Back from a Dive

The first major technology that I believe will become standardized in the recreational diving community is the rebreather.  A rebreather differs from our traditional scuba equipment because it takes the air we exhale, scrubs the CO2 that we generate and adds oxygen that we consume, allowing us to ‘re-breathe’ that air over and over again.  This makes the system very efficient.  Depending on the rebreather technology, a diver can use one quarter of the air that we normally consume and dive for 5-6 times as long.

 

Since the air is recycled, there are no bubbles, and the diver is completely silent.  For photographers, this is a big advantage since it is now possible to approach animals that would otherwise be wary of the noise and bubbles as the diver approaches for that close shot.  Why don’t all divers use this amazing technology today?  The  CO2 is removed using a chemical as the exhaled air is passed over it.  This is a fairly volatile chemical that can generate deadly fumes if it gets wet.  The right amount of oxygen must be added to the used air to get it to the proper oxygen level.  This requires the use of oxygen sensors and electronics to make the system work properly.  Oxygen sensors degrade over time and can fail.  Electronics do not like salt water.  There are many ways for the system to fail and deliver bad air to the diver if it is not maintained and used properly.

 

When I was in Florida a couple months ago, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Jeff Bozanic. Jeff is an amazing diver who has been all over the world. He was honored with the DAN/Rolex Diver of the Year in 2007. He is also the author of Mastering Rebreathers, Second Edition, which I acquired immediately afterwards.  One of the interesting comments that he made concerned rebreather accidents.  He said that the vast majority of accidents are due to human error, not mechanical failure.  This means that the equipment is reliable as long as the diver is properly trained and follows proper procedures for use and maintenance.

 

Poseidon Mark VI Rebreather

Poseidon Mark VI Rebreather

The current problem is that if one wants to use a rebreather, one needs to get trained and certified for that specific manufacturer’s rebreather design.  There are components common across all rebreather models, but the variations make them unique in their operation.  I believe that this will change in the near future.  Rebreathers are becoming more popular in the recreational diving world despite their cost (upwards of $10,000) and complexity because of the advantages I mentioned.  PADI is going to be offering a certification class for the Poseidon Mark VI rebreather later this year.  For PADI, a recreational diving certification agency, to start supporting rebreather technologies is a big step forward.

 

But, there is still an issue with the manufacturer specific designs.  PADI is providing certification for one specific rebreather brand.  For rebreathers to reach mass appeal, there needs to be a consistency across the different models.  I know that with my non-brand specific dive training, I can use pretty much any open circuit regulator on the market and the operation is the same.  It does not matter whether I am using a ScubaPro, Aqualung or Apex regulator.  They are all similar enough in form and function so that I do not need specific training for the different brands and models.

 

It will be several years, but I believe that rebreathers will become a standardized, widely adopted technology for recreational and professional divers.  Manufacturers need to decide upon standardized designs, training programs need to be put in place and the price of the units needs to continue to drop.  All of this will happen, if rebreathers are to become standard equipment.

 

Full Face Mask

Full Face Mask

Another technology that is interesting and becoming popular is the full face mask.  The full face mask as the name denotes, covers a diver’s entire face.  The regulator is attached to the mask and does not have to be placed in the mouth.  This provides two key benefits.  First, if there is an accident, the regulator and air supply stays attached to the diver, allowing the unconscious or disabled diver to continue to breathe and not drown as long as there is an available air supply.  Second, since there is nothing in the diver’s mouth, it is now possible to talk underwater.  There are even headsets that allow people on the surface to communicate with these divers.

 

There are disadvantages to the full face mask, of course.  The air space is much larger, meaning that there is a greater potential for dead air spaces and CO2 accumulation.  Excess CO2 can cause headaches, lethargy and eventually death.  Also, since the mask completely covers the nose, it is harder for some people to equalize their air spaces since the pinching of the nose becomes difficult.

 

The underwater world has always been considered the silent world.  Traditionally, it has been hard to speak underwater since there are regulators in our mouths.  Sounds travel faster in water making it essentially impossible to determine the direction of its origin.  Typically, when diving, all one hears is one’s own breathing and the bubbles being exhaled with each breath.  To communicate, divers use hand signals similar to sign language.  There are special signals for telling your fellow divers that you are OK, or if you are running low on air.  The full face mask changes that paradigm.  The ability to verbally communicate with divers is a major change in the way we dive.

 

The full face mask has become fairly standardized.  The designs are consistent across manufacturers to the point that it is possible to take a class for the technology and not for the manufacturer.  They are popular with scientific divers, commercial divers and even in aquariums where divers can host Q&A sessions with the guests.  As they continue to gain popularity and acceptance, expect to see more of them on your fellow divers.

 

The landscape of recreational diving is continuing to change.  We can see technologies emerging and divers continually playing with ideas to improve their capabilities.  This is an exciting time to be scuba diving and I am expecting a lot from everyone in the diving community to advance the sport.

 

-Frank

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1 Comment to Dive Technologies of the Future

  1. Nick from New SCUBA Marketing says:

    June 1st, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Great read! I’ll be attending one of PADI’s Tech Xplor (or whatever strange spelling they’re using) events in a week. I fully anticipate one of the big highlights will be rebreathers. I believe Poseiden will be in attendance, but they are also doing their tour allowing anyone to try the Mark VI. From what I saw at DEMA, it looks like a great unit. Considering it replaces a BCD, tanks, regulator and gauges, the ~$7k price tag isn’t that much of a stretch either. Cool stuff out there!

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