Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 10:13 UK

Underwater 'flying machine' launched

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Graham Hawkes and Super Falcon
Graham Hawkes said once underwater, the craft could cover a 20km area

The oceans of the world remain one of the great mysteries but one man believes his latest invention will change all that.

Graham Hawkes has built a state of the art submersible that offers "exotic new capabilities to explore one of the least understood parts of the planet".

His Deep Flight Super Falcon has been dubbed the Lear jet of the oceans.

Mr Hawkes said that, unlike other submersibles, his deep sea craft could actually "fly underwater".

"Normal submersibles have ballast systems and are nothing more than sinkers. They just treat the ocean as a vertical elevator and they typically work on the bottom on a small footprint.

"This one, instead of being a crab you drop to the bottom, is like a dolphin. It will fly off and move through the ocean with grace. It looks like a big animal moving and can do barrel rolls with whales," explained Mr Hawkes.

'Underwater adventuring'

The Super Falcon is the culmination of 20 years of work and four generations of experimental prototype winged submersibles.

The creators plan to let members of the public take part in "flight school" and fly underwater in the submersible later this year. The cost of going where few have gone before ranges from $5,000 (£3,300) to $15,000 (£9,900).

An earlier version of the sub, called the Challenger, was made for the adventurer Steve Fossett, who was best known for being the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon.

Fossett's craft soars over Australia on Aug. 16, 1998, shortly after traveling 10,480 miles and breaking his own record for distance in a balloon.
Mr Fossett broke his own record for distance in a balloon in August 1998

Mr Fossett had planned to dive to a record breaking 37,000 feet in the Challenger before his death in an air accident over the Nevada desert in 2007.

Mr Hawkes has already built and sold a Super Falcon to the American billionaire Tom Perkins, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist backing companies like Google, Symantec and Genentech.

"When I was looking for a submersible, I wanted a fighter jet, not a blimp," said Mr Perkins.

"I believe the Super Falcon is the future for underwater adventuring."

The inventor's own Super Falcon craft was unveiled to the public at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where Mr Hawkes declared it "the most beautiful machine ever built".

"This is the machine I always wanted to build for myself," he told the BBC.

"It will set a new tone for access in the ocean and hopefully we can connect people to that part of the world like never before."

Under the hood

The Super Falcon can reach depths of 1,500 feet and speed through the ocean at six knots, which is nearly seven miles per hour and much faster than conventional submersibles.

super falcon
One of the vessel's aims is to help connect people with the ocean

Mr Hawkes's design is said to be the first to operate on the same principles as flight through air, using downward "lift" on the wings to fly down to depth.

It weighs a 10th of its traditional rivals thanks to lowering the internal volume of the pressure hull. The vessel is powered by a set of lithium polymer batteries.

While a typical dive is around three to five hours, the Super Falcon has life support for 24 hours. And there is no issue with crew or passengers suffering from the "bends" or other pressure-related illnesses because the cabin pressure remains at one atmosphere.

And if there is an accident and the 4,000-pound vessel loses power, Mr Hawkes said it wouild "naturally glide back up to the surface".

It costs $1.5m (£993,400) to buy, which the inventor said was around the same price as a light jet.

"Obnoxious factor"

Despite being an engineer at heart, Mr Hawkes said he was also on a mission to turn his Super Falcon into an "ambassador of the seas".

"We live on a blue planet. Earth is a silly name," he said.

"We have mastered airspace with all kinds of aircraft. We have mastered near space with all kinds of spacecraft. We need to master underwater flight because the ocean is a three-dimensional space.

"It is not just deep, it's long and so this machine can go down and run with the whales, do barrel rolls and present marine life like it has never been seen before."

Charles Chiau
Mr Chiau said "flying" the Super Falcon was like a dream come true

Crucial to this task is keeping what Mr Hawkes described as the "obnoxious factor" to a minimum.

He explained that this meant the vessel was non-invasive. That was down to the fact it had a "low noise signature, low magnetic signature, low electrical signature and low light signature", said Mr Hawkes.

The latter he sees as particularly crucial because so much of marine life is sensitive to light and often scurries away from deep sea craft because they are emitting so much.

"We know for example that sharks are sensitive to electrical leakage so you put 1,000 volts down there and you have a nuclear reactor underwater with animals running away.

"There is not much point in flying in this space if everybody gets out of your way," said Mr Hawkes.

Charles Chiau, who is the chief electronics officer for Hawkes Ocean Technologies, has taken the Super Falcon out to depths of 500 feet.

"Imagine you are in a place no-one has gone before. You are able to do things no-one else has been able to do. You are able to flip. You can do barrel rolls and follow animals.

"I personally encountered three manta rays and flew through a school of sharks. That was just amazing. I felt like an old fashioned explorer," said Mr Chiau.

'Other space'

The first people to get a taste of life underwater will be those invited to take part on what has been called VIP in the sea. The programme, which will visit national marine sanctuaries, is aimed at policy makers, communicators, politicians, educators and artists.

"These are incredible areas of the ocean but people can't see them. They can't experience them because they are so deep," Maria Brown, a superintendent at the Gulf of Faralloness National Marine Sanctuary told BBC News.

"We need these people to experience these sanctuaries at first hand so they can spread the message of why they are important and help up protect them."

One of the first communicators to fly around the ocean will be John Markoff, a senior writer with the New York Times who had his name pulled out of a lucky draw during the event at the Academy.

"I love the idea and confess I haven't thought of this notion about this other space we are not able to reach.

"I don't even know what to expect but I am excited about it and also a little scared. After all there are creatures down there that can eat you," joked Mr Markoff.

Submersible graphic, BBC



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