James Cameron Reveals his Deep-Sea Sub

The director hopes to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench this month

2 min read
Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

The Mariana Trench is having a moment of fame—again.

Fifty-two years after the first and only manned expedition to the deepest spot in the world’s oceans—a daring dive by two men in an eccentric vehicle called a bathyscaphe—several teams are vying to be second. With cutting-edge submersibles, they’re aiming to send a human being to the bottom of that 11-kilometer-deep crevasse.

In our March issue, we profiled the Virgin Oceanic team, which is led by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and California adventurer Chris Welsh. They hope to attempt a Mariana dive before the end of the year. But it looks very likely that another team will beat the Virgin Oceanic folks to the bottom. Today James Cameron, director of films like The Abyss and Titanic, finally unveiled his super-secret sub, and announced that he’ll try to reach the Mariana Trench seafloor this month. That’s his sub, which he has named the DeepSea Challenger, in the picture above.

Like the Virgin Oceanic submersible, Cameron’s vehicle is also a one-seater, which means that Cameron is on track to become the first human being to take a solo dive in the deepest abyss.

We should note that none of the people involved like to characterize this as a “race to the bottom,” even if that’s how the rest of the world sees it. Both teams are working with research scientists to bring back samples and recordings from the unexplored seafloor, and both groups say the more vehicles down there, the better it will be for science.

From a technology perspective, it’s interesting to review the differences in the designs of the two teams’ submersibles. The Virgin Oceanic sub looks like a stubby-winged plane, and will use hydrodynamic forces to pull it down through the water (the same way aerodynamic forces pull an airplane up). In a radical departure from submersible convention, the Virgin sub uses a cylindrical pressure hull made of carbon fiber for the crew compartment, and sports a large quartz dome on the front. See below:

illustration of Cameron sub

photo of Cameron sub

In contrast, Cameron’s sub uses a traditional steel sphere for the crew cabin; spheres are the most pressure-resistant shape, and since we understand the properties of steel quite well, it's a safer, if tamer, choice. (The pressure at the bottom of the trench is about 110 megapascals, or about 16 000 psi.) The crew cabin is embedded within a vehicle that Cameron described as a “vertical torpedo,” which will fall straight down through the water.

Other components of the two teams' subs are similar: They both use steel plates for ballast to weigh them down during the descent, and high-tech syntactic foam (an epoxy with hollow glass microspheres) as the buoyant material that will bring the subs back up to the surface after they drop their ballast on the seafloor.

Cameron won’t have a great view from inside the crew cabin, since it sports only one small porthole. But to no one’s surprise, the director’s sub is decked out with LED arrays and cameras. Cameron has announced that the Mariana Trench dive will form the basis of two documentaries, one in 3D that will be shown on IMAX screens, and another to air on the National Geographic channel.

DeepSea Challenger Photos: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic; Virgin Oceanic Graphic: Bryan Christie Design

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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