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A personal deep-sea submersible takes flight

Hawkes Ocean Technologies shows off its $1.5 million submersible, which is capable of launching anywhere in the world and descending to 1,000 feet below sea level.

The deep-sea submersible, Deep Flight Super Falcon, from Hawkes Ocean Technologies. The vessel, which can descend 1,000 feet below the sea surface, was unveiled on Wednesday in San Francisco.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--For Graham Hawkes, the inventor of an entirely new class of deep-sea submersibles, a reporter's question on Wednesday--What kind of fish inspired his new flying craft?--was the perfect opportunity to vent about one of his chief frustrations with science.

"The thousands we don't know of," Hawkes answered, adding that when a world-class ichthyologist friend of his had said he'd never before seen many of the different species of fish they'd passed by while flying far underwater in one of his vessels, "I go, 'yeehah.'"

On Wednesday, Hawkes, his business partner and wife, Karen Hawkes and the employees of their company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies, unveiled the Deep Flight Super Falcon, a $1.5 million "flying" submersible capable of going as far as 1,000 feet below the surface with two passengers, and that the company hopes will help foster a new era of understanding about the ocean.

The company had previously built an identical craft for venture capitalist Tom Perkins, but this vessel will belong to the Hawkes and they plan to use it for, among other things, promoting a new exploration of the vast areas of the deep sea that until now have been out of reach for nearly all of humankind.

"If people could see (the deep sea, and access it), we wouldn't call this planet Earth," Graham Hawkes said, alluding to the fact that 94 percent of life on the planet is aquatic. "Earth is a stupid name for a beautiful ocean planet. The fact that we call it Earth means we don't understand it."

Graham Hawkes, the inventor of the Deep Flight Super Falcon, has been working on submersibles for 20 years, and is now in the process of creating a fifth-generation vessel intended for science, industry, and the military. But he said the Super Falcon, the fourth generation, is as good as he knows how to create. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

The Deep Flight Super Falcon is what Hawkes called "Gen four," or the company's fourth generation of submersibles. In 1995, Hawkes Ocean Technologies launched its first vessel, Deep Flight 1, followed up in 2003 with a two-seat trainer known as Deep Flight Aviator. It made big news last year when it became known that the company had built, on commission, a submersible known as Deep Flight Challenger for adventurer Steve Fossett.

That project was a secret, but when Fossett's remains were found about a year after he died in a mountain plane accident, the company put the word out about it: Deep Flight Challenger had been designed to be the first craft in history capable of taking a solo passenger to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 37,000 feet below the surface.

To date, Hawkes said, there are just five other deep ocean submersible crafts in the world, all of which are owned by national governments. But those vessels are costly operations requiring dedicated "motherships" to launch a mission. As a result, they have an extremely limited exploration range once they reach their desired depths.

By contrast, Hawkes Ocean Technologies' submersibles are between an eighth and a tenth the weight of the nationally-owned crafts and can therefore be launched anywhere in the world from many different kinds of rented ships. Once below the surface, they can cover as much as 20 kilometers of territory.

The Deep Flight Super Falcon has a maximum depth of 1,000 feet, but is expected to generally descend to no more than 400 feet. It can sustain two people for up to 24 hours, but the company expects normal dives to be between one and three hours in order to maintain the passengers' comfort.

Pulling back the wraps
For Wednesday's event, Hawkes Ocean Technologies gathered a group of journalists, members of the California Academy of Sciences, and friends of the company to witness the unveiling.

Graham Hawkes got the festivities started by standing in front of the craft, which was covered in a colorful parachute-like fabric and explaining that it had voice-activated controls. He began yelling out a series of commands: "Sub power, activate;" "Activate flight;" "Activate thrust," and so on. Beneath the cover, there were some clicks, the tail began to move and it was clear that Hawkes' commands were working. "Power up wing tip light," he shouted, and indeed, they came on.

The Super Falcon, as seen from the front. It is engineered to 'fly,' and relies on some of the same principles of airplane flight, including lift. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Finally, it was time to unveil the vessel, and so with a flourish, Hawkes had his son pull back the wraps.

The joke was on us: two grinning faces appeared under the submersible's clear acrylic domes.

But the Deep Flight Super Falcon was for real, and it was beautiful. It is brand new and gleaming white. And befitting what Hawkes and his people kept referring to as a "flying" vessel, it has both main and tail wings and does look somewhat like a small airplane.

In fact, unlike the world's other submersibles, the Super Falcon doesn't rely on ballast to sink or rise. Rather, it follows the model of air flight, using downward lift on the wings to descend to depth. It can reach speeds of between six and eight knots, much faster than conventional submarines.

Powering the vessel are a set of lithium polymer batteries, and it launches with up to 48 cubic feet of oxygen, Hawkes said. It uses LED lights to make it possible for the passengers to see, even while minimizing the impact on aquatic life unaccustomed to unnatural light.

And while the craft is designed with redundant safety systems and enough air for up to 24 hours, it is also "positive buoyant," meaning that when it comes to a full stop, its 4,000 pounds naturally rise to the surface.

Hawkes Ocean Technologies chief electronics engineer Charles Chiau sits inside one of the 'domes,' the acrylic tops that allow passengers to see everything around them as they travel in the submersible. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

For the passengers, each housed in a tiny seat and looking out into the water through crystal-clear acrylic domes, things on board are designed to be comfortable, if not luxurious. The pilot controls the ship with a right-side joystick that directs pitch, yaw, and roll, and a left-side lever for throttle. There are two sets of three digital readouts: on the right, life support monitors showing partial pressure of oxygen, cabin pressure, and earth-leakage measurement; and on the left, a throttle position setting and left- and right-battery power. There's also redundant oxygen tanks, and a system of fully-protected high-power electronics.

Go where no one has gone
To Charles Chiau, the chief electronics engineer for Hawkes Ocean Technologies, traveling on board one of the company's submersibles is unlike anything else.

"Imagine you're in a place no one has gone before," Chiau said, nearly glowing, "able to do things no one has done before...I personally encountered three manta rays, and we went through a school of sharks."

Chiau said that passengers don't feel claustrophobic because of the transparency of the domes. Rather, it's like their heads are directly in the water, though obviously protected. The domes "go away," he said.

To Karen Hawkes, the experience of riding the submersible is "balletic and quiet," and allows you to "move through water, tailing animals."

All of this is vital because, as Graham Hawkes had said, one of the company's major goals is to connect people with the ocean, and Karen Hawkes said they want to "use this as an ambassador for the ocean."

As a result, the company is undertaking two different programs with the Deep Flight Super Falcon, one a flight school in Monterey, Calif., and the second a VIP program (which will be run in conjunction with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries) intended to take influential people--such as legislators and writers--down in the vessel so they can experience the deep ocean in ways that might encourage them to advocate for further exploration.

Inside the submersible, the pilot uses a joystick to control pitch, yaw and roll, and has two different sets of digital readouts, including the one on the right here that shows a set of life support measurements. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

"We want to send (down) poets and writers," said Graham Hawkes, before being asked if he personally liked poetry. "No, I don't, I'm an engineer. (But) we've got to stop sending (only) engineers down there."

The idea, Hawkes said, is that it's hard to ask lawmakers to set policy for a massive part of the planet with which they have no direct experience. And so the company and NOAA hope that the VIP program will help alleviate that problem.

The flight school, which will take place during summers, will cost $15,000 for a three-day course--after which graduates will get a certificate enabling them to pilot a submersible--or $5,000 for a half-day lesson.

Hawkes said the company is now in the process of working on a fifth-generation submersible that will be geared more toward industry, science, and the military. But he said he feels that the Deep Flight Super Falcon is a machine with "no compromises." With the Deep Flight Challenger, built for Fossett, the company got "depth out of the way," and the Super Falcon was built just the way he wants a submersible.

"This is the first machine," Hawkes began, before stopping. "I don't know how to build it any better."

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.