Aussies engineer world’s deepest solo dive

By Natsumi Penberthy 2 April 2012
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Movie-maker James Cameron has conquered the world’s deepest solo dive, with the help of a crack team of Aussie engineers.

ON MARCH 26 as movie maker James Cameron descended 1100km into the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, he was in a submarine built on Aussie soil and finished in a workshop in Leichhardt, Sydney.

After three hours in the black infinity, where his lime-green capsule was subjected pressures 1100-times that on land, the sub’s Aussie engineers we able to breath again as cheers erupted and Cameron pulled himself out.

World’s deepest submarine dive: Australian engineers make the parts

The Challenger Deep hasn’t been attempted since 1960 when naval officer Don Walsh and engineer and oceanographer Jacques Piccard went down in the Trieste, and famously hit the bottom, stayed 20 minutes and came straight back up. Cameron however, stayed for three hours, and the length of the “Green Bean” as engineers have dubbed the sub, was squeezed inwards an alarming 7cm. The steel pilot’s sphere visibly shrunk Cameron reported.

“We’d tested the steel sphere at almost real pressures in a chamber at Penn State in the US,” says Tassie engineer Phil Durbin, who was in charge of constructing the key structural components, the pilot’s sphere and the outer shell. “But the bean hadn’t been down to those pressures until they did an unmanned run not long before James’ dive.”

There are three main components to keeping Cameron safe says Phil: the buoyancy, controlled by the bean; the pilot’s sphere; and the control over the weights, which take the sub down and are then released so that the sub floats back up to the surface.

Phil, who’d been involved in the project for six years, says that the project hit warp speed at the beginning of 2011 when they cracked the elements of the foam that make up the bean, which have been patented. “My part had to be done before anyone else could work on the other bits of the sub,” Phil told Australian Geographic, “so there was some pressure.”

Nonetheless, the record dive didn’t quite go off without a hitch, Cameron was meant to stay on the bottom for six hours but one of his mechanical arms, made by US engineers, malfunctioned preventing him from collecting valuable sample material.

Still out there with James Cameron

Two of Cameron’s 56-strong team who worked on various aspects of the sub and dive are in fact Australian Geographic Society sponsored adventurers: Dr Glenn Singleman, the crew’s doctor and Dave Goldie, one of the sub’s engineers. Dave Goldie, who travelled across the Canadian Artic in a kite-powered sled in 2009, was part of the engineering team that went with Cameron to the Pacific.

Australian Geographic wingsuit adventurer Dr Glenn Singleman, who completed an AG Society sponsored attempt at the highest, longest and furthest wingsuit flight in in 2008, also went as the team’s doctor.

Cameron, the director of Terminator,Titanic and Avatar – to name a few – filmed the dive for a 3-D documentary, currently operating under the working title, “Deepsea Challenge”. He emerged to claps, describing the bottom as bleak and largely lifeless, except for a few tiny shrimp-like arthropods.

Phil says that because most of the Aussie engineered sub worked, “my part might be done”. For Cameron however, this is just the begining. He’s still out there testing, and says he plans to return to dive the trench again in the near future.