Diving to the edge of darkness
Adam Wright still remembers the first time he walked into the Hawkes Ocean Technologies office in 2000. He had just graduated from Drake High School in Marin County, California. He was looking for hands-on experience during the summer before he started studying mechanical engineering at Berkeley.
“I had heard about this company randomly through the news, and I just contacted them out of the blue,” Wright says. They were headquartered in Point Richmond, just across the bay from where he grew up. Intrigued by the idea of building submersibles for underwater flight, he packed up his portfolio—thin at the time, really just some CAD drawings—and went to meet Graham Hawkes.
Hawkes, a mechanical engineer, has been designing and building underwater machines for 40 years. In the late 1970s, in his native England, he built his first submersible—a suit with thrusters and flexible joints that could be worn by a diver, like an underwater Iron Man. Next, he built a small submarine, with mechanical arms and a pressurized cockpit. It was a commercial success and in demand by underwater oil and gas developers. Hawkes also got the chance to pilot it in the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.
In 1985, Hawkes set the world record at the time for the deepest solo dive, to 3,000 feet, off the California coast. Since the early 1980s, he has lived and worked in the Bay Area, starting several companies and developing different kinds of submersible technologies for underwater filming, exploration and research.
Hawkes launched Hawkes Ocean Technologies in 1995 and, since then, he has focused on developing a set of manned submarines in a design series called DeepFlight. The subs travel underwater using the same flying principles as aircraft. The company created and patented their own underwater flight systems and is currently the only venture actively developing the concept.
As a college intern, Wright worked on developing some of DeepFlight’s early subs. His primary job was to transcribe Hawkes’s sketches into 3D drawings.
“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.
During his junior year at Berkeley, in 2004, Wright took a semester off to travel with the DeepFlight team to the Gulf of California, between Baja and mainland Mexico. One of the company’s subs, the DeepFlight Aviator, was being used as a platform for a film crew making a television program about marauding Humboldt squid. “I fell in love with underwater vehicles and the whole mystery of the underwater world,” he says.
When he graduated in 2005, Wright was thinking about graduate school at MIT, where he had been accepted. But Hawkes asked if he would stay and work on a DeepFlight vehicle that could fly along the deepest canyons of the ocean. Hawkes was building a sub that Steve Fossett, known for his record-setting aeronautical adventures, could pilot to the bottom of the 37,000-foot-deep Mariana Trench, at the bottom of the western Pacific.
“That was an experience I couldn’t pass up, so I signed on full time in 2005,” Wright says. “That project was so large-scale that it was the only contract we had.” The team had to design, fabricate and test a submarine that could withstand more than 1,000 atmospheres of pressure and then be able to maneuver independently, miles under the surface of the ocean. They called the vessel the DeepFlight Challenger.
But in 2007, Fossett went missing when the single-seat plane he was flying disappeared over the eastern Sierra Nevada. The work on the Challenger halted, but only for the time being. Eventually, Sir Richard Branson purchased the sub for Virgin Oceanic and is now working to finish the mission to successfully pilot the sub to one of the planet’s most inaccessible areas.
With Fossett missing, the DeepFlight team had to switch gears. Rather than building one vehicle for a massive expedition to the deepest place on Earth, they started to design a two-seater submarine—called the DeepFlight Super Falcon—that targets more moderate adventures and can fly through the first 400 or 500 feet of water. Any deeper than 500 feet in the ocean, all natural light is blotted out; the seawater turns an inky black. Divers and submariners call it the edge of darkness.
The Hawkes Ocean Technologies office resembles a neat garage with a glass wall front. The workspace looks out on the Richmond Marina, tucked behind a breakwater—the city of San Francisco is further out on the horizon, across the bay. Inside, walls are lined with shelves, which hold locally sourced components and parts for the company’s vehicles. In the middle of the room, on a trailer, is the latest iteration of the Super Falcon.
The sub is slender, and even with the two bulbous, acrylic hatches that enclose the pilot and co-pilot’s head and shoulders, the sub looks more like a bullet designed to be shot across the Bonneville Salt Flats than a squat diving machine.
“To understand why our technology is so different, you have to understand that traditional submarines operate on a system of ballasts,” Wright says. “So you have internal tanks that you can either flood with water to make the sub heavy or evacuate the tanks and replace water with air to make it light. That system has a major failure point. If your ballast system ever has a problem and starts filling up with water, you are heading straight to the bottom. Oftentimes, standard submarines are carrying extra ballasts that they can drop in an emergency.” It also means that traditional subs don’t operate in water deeper than their safety rating, which closes vast regions of the ocean to exploration.
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, sitting in the middle of the office on a standard-sized recreational boat trailer, is the perfect example. It can be launched just about anywhere.
Underwater flight, Wright says, is not a particularly complicated idea. “People made the same jump from dirigibles to fixed-wing aircraft. 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 because it doesn’t have all of these additional systems to submerge and ascend safely,” Wright says.
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. 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.
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. Like most of their engineering and design developments, the composite that the DeepFlight team has developed is proprietary. It’s basically a weave of material, with randomly aligned fibers. The randomness of the fiber layout keeps the material light while limiting stress failures. “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.
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 also 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.
Wright has been Hawkes Ocean Technologies’ principal mechanical engineer since 2010. In early 2013 he was named the company’s president and chief executive officer. Hawkes will remain the chairman of the board and the chief technology officer. Now, in addition to Wright’s work designing and building subs, he is also responsible for business development. He keeps a copy of The Lean Startup near his desk. Even though the company is well beyond startup mode, he likes the idea of modeling business practices after the subs they build—nimble and easily adapted to changing circumstances. Their sleekness allows them to stay focused on their core mission: opening access to the ocean and developing new technologies for underwater travel and exploration.
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.”