How to Turn an Archaeologist Into an Underwater Iron Man

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Photo: Brett Seymour
A diver from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tries out the exosuit beneath a Hellenic Navy vessel.

It used to be that all an archaeologist needed was a fedora hat and a bullwhip. Today’s professionals, however, have much more sophisticated gear. This month, marine archaeologists exploring an ancient Greek shipwreck tried out a high-tech “exosuit” for the first time, sending divers to the seafloor in something that resembles a spacesuit.

The first people to explore the Antikythera shipwreck, off the coast of Greece, were sponge divers practicing their trade in the year 1900. Diving in heavy suits and copper helmets, and breathing air through a hose from the surface, they stayed on the seafloor for only a few minutes at a time. Nonetheless, they discovered wonders such as the Anitkythera Mechanism, a geared gadget used by the ancient Greeks to predict astronomical events.

 When Jacques Cousteau returned to the site in 1976 he used scuba gear to search the wreck in 10-minute dives, and brought up heaps of treasure: bronze coins, parts of marble statues, ceramic vessels, and more. But because the shipwreck rests on the seabed about 60 meters (200 feet) down, where the water pressure is intense, Cousteau had to limit his time at the bottom to avoid getting decompression sickness when he came back up. 

The exosuit changes the equation. It’s essentially a flexible and human-shaped submarine, which maintains an atmospheric pressure inside that’s equivalent to that at the surface. Its inventor, Phil Nuytten of the marine technology company Nuytco Research, says the suit allows divers to work at depths of up to 300 meters (1000 feet) for hours at a time, and then to ascend rapidly to the surface. In typical scuba, divers have to ascend very slowly to avoid getting the bends as they return to a less pressurized environment. 

In the Antikythera dive, researchers were primarily testing the exosuit’s viability in the field; they don’t appear to have made any crucial discoveries thanks to their new outfit. But that may come in future expeditions. The exosuit they used is the first of its kind, and Nuytten says he has six more under construction—including one that he’s building for Jacques Cousteau’s son. 

Nuytten explains that the exosuit is an upgrade of an earlier atmospheric diving suit that he started selling in the 1980s, which was a hit with the world’s navies and oil companies involved in offshore drilling. The new exosuit, which sells for about $700,000, uses the same general principles as its predecessor, Nuytten says. “The suit itself is nothing more than a big camera case,” he says. “The secret is the movable joints.” Back in 1985, Nuytten patented a movable joint that moves easily under high pressure; the current exosuit incorporates 18 of these joints in the arms and legs. 

The exosuit is connected via a fiber optic cable to the surface ship, which allows for communication and lets the diver send back high-definition video. The suit can be propelled either by the diver, who can control four small thrusters with a footpad system, or it can be steered remotely from the surface. That means the suit can be sent down with nobody inside it, Nuytten notes, which could come in handy. “If you’re not sure whether a situation is hazardous, you can send the suit down first,” he says. “You can fly around and look at the job site before you ever put a person down there.”

The video below shows the exosuit’s first dive in Grecian waters. We’ll stay tuned to see if this impressive feat of engineering leads to commensurate feats of archaeology. 

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