Atmospheric Diving | the reluctant first breath

My turn in the pilot seat – I slid my legs into the lower section of the Exosuit ADS and found the sweet spot where I could touch the foot pedals (thruster control), yet lift them off the pedals as needed to disengage. Upon relaying an ‘ok’ to topside, the torso of the suit was lowered and latched into the lower section. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Once locked in, the pilot has to do a bit of a twist, and then drop one shoulder to allow the opposite arm to slide into the sleeve. This maneuver must be repeated during a dive to adjust life support as needed – the controls, oxygen monitoring, and gauges are on either side of the pilot’s head.  After some pre-dive adjustments, the dome is mounted, a vacuum is pulled on the suit, and it’s all systems go.

Once locked in to the suit with a vacuum pulled, I may as well have been a million miles from home. That’s the point of commitment when team interdependence becomes so mission critical. With the crane lifting me up and over to the test tank, I recalled that sense of reluctance that I had when first learning to SCUBA dive. This was several thousands of dive hours ago, but that reluctant first breath resonates to this day; for the first time, my basic human needs were compromised – in this case, breathing. While making the swing locked in to the suit, I realized that after all this time; this was truly a first step into an entirely new realm. Now of course, I’ve taken part in numerous dive training exercises, and have taught several as well – but this challenged everything I knew and had been comfortable with. There I was, locked into this suit of armor, under a vacuum, and being put in the water. Leaks were the last of my concerns – atmospheric management is the name of this game.

Being in an enclosed space, you must recycle the gas in that space and manage its contents such that it sustains life. Very simply, a chemical scrubber absorbs exhaled carbon dioxide, and oxygen is added at a rate that is keyed to the pilot’s metabolism. When managed properly, oxygen content in the enclosed space remains constant, and the vacuum is maintained inside the suit to verify watertight integrity.

Before the dome is installed, the ADS pilot verifies port and starboard oxygen control functions. These are life critical systems that must be in check before closing up the suit.
Before the dome is installed, the ADS pilot verifies port and starboard oxygen control functions. These are life critical systems that must be in check before creating an enclosed atmosphere.


Once in the water, while still hooked in to the crane, I took a few moments to get a feel for thruster control by using my feet. Left foot – up and down; right foot – forward/back and left/right. It takes intuitive coordination, rather than concentration to move about like this. Focusing acutely on thruster control is a distraction from the tasks at hand. Like anything, time in the water will drive home the required coordination. Once comfortable, I was let off the hook, and made my way to the bottom of the test tank.

As I worked my way around, there were plenty of clunks and clanks against the walls of the tank – and scars from plenty of pilots’ past – knowing that everyone faced similar challenges was reassuring. Situational awareness of one’s personal space is vastly different than with wet diving, as the suit adds some bulk and changes some of this sensory perception of space.

NG Explorer Michael Lombardi test dives the Exosuit ADS. Photo by Jim Clark, JF White Contracting Co.
NG Explorer Michael Lombardi test dives the Exosuit ADS. Photo by Jim Clark, JF White Contracting Co.

While I spent only a short few hours in the suit, its operation became rather intuitive. My first dive was a bit timid – perhaps letting the suit dive me. My second dive was much more aggressive, and I took the reins, for better or worse, and I have the bruises to prove it. With the inside of the suit being bare metal, and being a rigid space, the necessary shifting around while piloting can be personally abusive. This was far harder [physically] diving than I anticipated. Considering that I will be using the Exosuit for scientific endeavors, I focused some time on finding limits in range of motion of my arms and manipulators. Finding the ‘sweet spot’ will be critical as we consider designing scientific collection tooling. It quickly became apparent that piloting the suit, coupled with accomplishing a task, will require some time invested to reach a degree of proficiency. More time in the water, like anything else.

I also worked on a maneuver to go from upright (the natural position of the suit while not under power), to belly down – analogous to working on the bottom. While belly down, I found that by shifting my weight around inside of the suit, I was able to maneuver rather precisely plus or minus a few inches, and was able to pick up an object from the floor. A small step, but a critical one.

With little to do but struggle to learn how to walk all over again, my few hours in the test tank flew by. Banged up, bruised, and soaked with sweat and condensate from being effectively trapped in the suit’s inner space – I envisioned what could be lifetimes of work that lie ahead.

While limitations come from dexterity, I believe that the benefits outweigh these limitations. The ability to dive to 300, 400, 500, or even 1000 feet and spend a virtually unlimited amount of time working, observing, collecting, or manipulating changes the game as a diving scientist.

Next step – we tool up for the job at hand – and begin down the path of attaining some degree of proficiency in preparation to carry out the pursuit of discovery in the vast expanse of the open ocean.

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This Blog mini-series chronicles the author’s journey through depth, time, and space with the latest generation Atmospheric Diving System (ADS) Exosuit, designed and constructed by Dr. Phil Nuytten of Nuytco Research Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia. The first production suit is owned and operated by the Diving Division at the J. F. White Contracting Company located in Massachusetts – who has generously reached out to the science community to afford new opportunities for discovery with this technology.


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Meet the Author
Michael is a subaquatic entrepreneur, literary artist, environmental advocate, and explorer who strives to create a body of work to improve humans' personal experience with, and within, the ocean through unique applications and development of diving technology.