Flying to the edge of darkness

Adam Wright (B.S.’05 ME) still remembers the first time he walked into Hawkes Ocean Technologies in 2000. He had just graduated from a Marin County, California high school and was looking for hands-on experience during the summer before he started studying mechanical engineering at Berkeley. Intrigued by the idea of building submersibles for underwater flight, he packed up his portfolio—thin at the time—and went to meet Graham Hawkes at his office in the East Bay.

Adam Wright with the Super Falcon at the Hawkes Ocean Technologies office and workshop in Point Richmond, California. (Noah Berger photo)Adam Wright with the Super Falcon at the Hawkes Ocean Technologies office and workshop in Point Richmond, California. (Photo by Noah Berger)Hawkes, founder of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, had been building submersibles in one form or another since he launched the company in 1995. When Wright first began as an intern, Hawkes gave him a few simple CAD assignments. “One of my first projects was to work on a flight-control linkage. I had some direction from Graham, but then it was on my plate to make it happen. It was exciting that I could build something that could work,” Wright says.

But that was years ago. Wright worked with the company in various capacities while he was in college. When he graduated in 2005, he started working with Hawkes fulltime. Now he is principal engineer on the company’s latest project, the Super Falcon.

The vessel is the latest in a design series of manned subs called DeepFlight, which are built for underwater travel using the same flying principles as aircraft.

The Super Falcon is slender, and even with the two bulbous, acrylic hatches that enclose the pilot and co-pilot’s heads and shoulders, the sub looks more like a bullet designed to be shot across the Bonneville Salt Flats than a squat diving machine.

The physics that allow a sub to fly under the surface of the ocean are the same principles that cause lift under an aircraft—only reversed. Thrust is applied over an inverted wing structure called a foil. “People made the same jump from dirigibles to fixed-wing aircraft. The early aviators did the hard work. We just took their idea and applied it to the water. Technology-wise, our vehicle is much simpler than a normal submersible,” Wright says.

DeepFlight subs do not rely on the ballast system; instead, they fly. To get a submarine to fly through dense and heavy water, the team has made technical advances in underwater flight dynamics, pressure hull fabrication and materials, and the power and control systems.

DeepFlight subs are lighter, sleeker and more portable than their submarine predecessors. The Super Falcon, which rides on a standard-sized recreational boat trailer when it is on land, is the perfect example. It can be launched just about anywhere.

The power and control systems for the DeepFlight subs are constructed from modified, off-the-shelf electric car parts, which make sourcing the components reliable and relatively inexpensive.

Graham Hawkes piloting the Super Falcon. (Courtesy Hawkes Ocean Technologies)Graham Hawkes piloting the Super Falcon. (Photo by Hawkes Ocean Technologies)The battery, drive train and pilots sit inside a specialized pressure hull that is made from a glass-based composite material that has roots in traditional boatbuilding methods. “We form the material in very organic, non-standard shapes, and because it is so light, we can use horrendously thick sections of it and not lose a lot of buoyancy. It’s like we are getting free strength, which improves safety factors,” Wright says.

Like most of their engineering and design developments, the composite that the DeepFlight team has developed is proprietary.

In May 2013, Hawkes Ocean Technologies announced that the co-founder of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz, purchased a Super Falcon for a reported $1.7 million. So far, DeepFlight’s business model is to sell custom subs to high-end clientele (besides Mateschitz and Sir Richard Branson, billionaire investor Tom Perkins owns a DeepFlight sub), but the company is also investigating other business models, such as developing fleets of subs for underwater tourism.

As a byproduct of research and development for the DeepFlight series of subs, Hawkes Ocean Technologies also develops and licenses other underwater technology. Parked on another trailer in their workspace, near the Super Falcon, is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that Wright and his team are developing in partnership with Boston-based Bluefin Robotics. The vehicle has numerous applications, ranging from scientific research to monitoring underwater oil and gas development.

One of the latest submersible advances developed by the company is Spider Optics, which is a system of spooling and unspooling an armored fiber-optic cable to a remotely operated sub. The Spider Optics system removes the need for specialized tether management equipment for submersible ROVs; the tether can be plugged into a laptop on the deck of a ship, an open sea platform or from the shore, which opens up more possible applications.

In early 2013, Wright was named Hawkes Ocean Technologies’ president and CEO. Graham Hawkes will continue on with the company as the chairman of the board and the chief technology officer.

Now having traveled full circle from an unpaid summer intern to running the company, Wright likes to stay connected to what inspired him to reach out to Hawkes in the first place. “We have company expeditions from time to time,” Wright says, the most recent being an acoustical study of gray whales off the coast of Hawaii in the early spring of 2013. “We do them just for the pure love of flight.”

See more about Adam Wright and DeepFlight in the Fall 2013 Berkeley Engineer. You can see the Super Falcon in action on the acoustical whale study on YouTube.