Barnstormer of the Deep

DN Staff

March 3, 1997

15 Min Read
Barnstormer of the Deep

Ten feet below the rippling surface of St. John's Harbor in Newfoundland, Graham Hawkes waits expectantly for the signal. It's 1984, and Hawkes, decked out in full tuxedo and comfortably ensconced in the 53-inch diameter clear acrylic pressure vessel of what was then his latest submersible, Deep Rover, is scheduled to surprise a crowd gathered for its unveiling. On cue, he thrusts the craft upward and breaks the surface, triggering spontaneous gasps, then applause.

Before the day is over, dozens of ordinary people, including Hawkes' 13-year- old daughter, pilot Deep Rover, which was at the time the industry's most advanced manned submersible. Though capable of descending to 3,000 ft--a depth to which Hawkes later piloted it to set a current world record--Deep Rover handles more easily than a car. "You wouldn't give your car keys to someone who had never driven," says Sir John Rawlins, Surgeon Vice Admiral (ret.) for the Royal Navy. "But you could do that with a GB pound 3,000,000 vehicle that you had to steer in three dimensions. That tells you something about his genius."

That genius has resulted in much more than Deep Rover. It's led to a series of submersibles and undersea robotic arms that define the state of the art. Inside the world of ocean engineering, Hawkes is widely regarded as a creative maverick. And many bet he will design the vehicles that succeed in opening manned access to the Marianas Trench--more than seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. His latest project: Deep Flight, a series of one-man, highly maneuverable submersibles that define a new category of undersea vehicle.

Hawkes' designs are renowned for their advanced ergonomics. Deep Rover's controls, for example, are revolutionary. The pilot sits upright in a comfortable chair. Microswitches under the armrests command both the horizontal and vertical thrusters. Slight fore or aft movements of the armrests direct the submersible forward, backward, or when used together--one forward and one aft--in a circle. Vertical motion is commanded by rocking the armrests up and down--they pivot slightly on fulcrums, like a seesaw. And joysticks mounted at the end of each armrest control the two manipulator arms--also designed by Hawkes--that extend from Deep Rover's bow.

Just twelve months earlier Hawkes had invited to dinner Bruce Robison, senior scientist for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and possibly the most experienced submersible pilot in the world. During the course of the evening, Hawkes handed Robison a model of Deep Rover with a GI Joe doll perched inside. "He said, 'I'll have you in it in a year,'" recalls Robison. "And I looked at the doll, which made it all the more wacky, and thought, this guy is from outer space."

In a year, Robison found himself at the controls, ogling at their brilliant simplicity. "In virtually every other vehicle in the world you have to take your hands off the thrusters to use the manipulators," he says. "Not in Deep Rover."

It's a lesson in not underestimating the creative forces that drive Hawkes. Since 1970 he's been responsible for the design of more than 70% of all manned submersibles. His WASP, MANTIS, and Deep Rover vehicles are used worldwide for offshore oilfield work, salvage, and scientific research. A MANTIS helped recover debris from a prototype military aircraft downed in the North Sea. And scientists have found Deep Rover indispensable for studying marine life eye to eye. "The midwater regions of the ocean just weren't accessible before Deep Rover; research in the water column was done from the surface with nets," says Robison. "It absolutely revolutionized the way we do things."

His unmanned remotely operated vehicles (ROV) are the world's best sellers as well. Deep Ocean Engineering, the Oakland, CA, firm he co-founded with marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle, has produced more than 350 of Hawkes' Phantom ROVs in sixteen variations. Among their uses:

NASA has a Phantom to test ideas on tele-operation.

  • Eleven world navies own them.

  • Sixty-six Phantoms are used to inspect nuclear pressure vessels.

  • The Department of Energy placed one 5,000-ft below the ground in a chamber of heavy water to tune and maintain an array of neutrino detectors.

"These aren't toys," emphasizes Robison, "they're serious tools." During a single month, Robison and a crew piloted a Deep Rover 55 times, with the average dive lasting six hours.

Deeper, faster. But Hawkes isn't one to sit by idly, basking in accolades. Last October he launched his most ambitious design to date: Deep Flight 1 (see DN 4/22/96). The sleek one-man vehicle "represents a new species of submersible," says Don Walsh, president of International Maritime and one of only two humans ever to visit the 36,198-ft Challenger Deep. Still undecided on a phylum name, Hawkes calls Deep Flight 1 (DF-1) either a Hydro Acrobatic Winged Craft (HWAC) or Fixed Wing Submersible (FWS).

Its innovation: the elimination of the variable-buoyancy system. Instead, DF-1 is always slightly positively buoyant. Two stubby airfoils attached to its flanks generate downward lift as the submersible moves forward, producing descents at 480 fpm, or ascents, assisted by natural buoyancy, at 650 fpm. A pair of seven-horsepower adjustable-speed dc electric motors propel the craft to 12 knots--eight times faster than Deep Rover--enough to lift it out of the domain of static, dirigible-like submersibles and into the region ruled by dynamic forces. It needs no weights nor water ballast; depth control is elegantly simple and infinitely renewable.

Further bucking convention is the pilot's position. Lying prone with hands clasped to rigid-mounted joysticks, he controls the submersible via switches and buttons on the pistol grips. It's a position driven by the desire for low drag, and it's the orientation most every living thing naturally assumes--humans included--when placed in the water.

"Really, the whole thing is perfectly obvious," says Hawkes. Even so, within the submersibles community, he says, some people see Deep Flight as a crazy idea that has gone too far. "In reality, it doesn't push far enough," he argues.

What is far enough? Deep Flight 2, still on the drawing board, might come close. The first Deep Flight was always intended to be a technology demonstrator as well as a play toy. No manipulators clutter its bow, no scientific instruments crowd its controls. Deep Flight 2, however, should retain the thoroughbred speed and hydrobatic agility of its predecessor, but push the depth capability from DF-1's 1,000 meters all the way to 11,000 meters and the ocean's very bottom. Modular packaging will allow it to adopt both functional and fun roles.

Boyhood barnstormer. Hawkes ambitions and accomplishments with the design of submersibles are all the more remarkable for a guy that fell into the industry by accident. You see, he really wanted to design aircraft.

Born in London, England, in 1947, Hawkes grew up during the golden age of jets. Always known as a "professor," he loved to assemble models. "I dreamed of the pioneering era of aviation when you'd build a plane in the back garden from string and canvas and, for a few weeks, fly faster than anyone else," he says.

Unspectacular grades kept him out of the top aerospace schools. He ultimately graduated with honors and a mechanical engineering degree from Borough Polytechnic Institute.

Chance landed him a job with Plessy Underwater Weapons Unit where he was later assigned to redesign a swimmer delivery vehicle for the elite Special Boat Section of the military. To get a better grasp on the topic, Hawkes re-searched the latest submersible technologies. "I found them primitive, still using materials like wood and iron," he says. It was an industry still in its barnstorming age--raw, backward, and wide open. Though born too late to design Spitfires and Hurricanes, he saw a chance to translate that era to another industry. "Within a month, I made the decision that that was what I wanted to do."

In 1975, cuts in his project's budget prompted him to move to DHB Construction, where he worked on refining the famous anthropomorphic diving suit, JIM. Hawkes proposed eliminating the legs and mobilizing the suit for midwater use. Not finding support for the idea, he co-founded Offshore Systems Engineering, Ltd. (OSEL) to produce such a legless atmospheric diving system (ADS) called WASP.

"Graham went off to a derelict cottage with no electricity and designed frantically," says John Lawrence, CEO and president of Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology. Sketching in front of the window for light, he created the first freely available midwater ADS. Innovations included a full clear-dome helmet in place of the small windows that JIM had. "Actually, it was a 21-inch salad bowl 5/8ths of an inch thick," Hawkes says, "and I dove it to 2,000 feet."

Birth of the MANTIS. With successful "amputation" of the legs complete, he began considering removing the articulated arms as well. "I'd been in a tank simulating the kind of work done on offshore oil platforms," says Hawkes, "and the arms [on WASP] just didn't have enough muscle." Manipulators, he reasoned, would free up the design and lead to a microsubmersible.

There was one catch: mechanical arms of sufficient sophistication didn't exist. He'd have to design his own.

For weeks he shut himself in a remote cabin without a phone and delved into books on anatomy. He knew he wanted force feedback, but was also certain that a geometrically precise arm, such as a factory robot, was not the solution. "What you need is more akin to a prosthetic," he says. "You don't care at all about linearity, but you can't have hysteresis."

"Humans don't know the absolute position of their arm," says Rawlins. "The tension in your muscles works like strain gauges to give you feedback, and you learn where your hand is. Graham thought that if he could build a manipulator on that principle, it would be enormously superior."

Hawkes' first attempt to operate his two-axis prototype failed horribly--it flailed about out of control. He stormed from the room defeated.

Later at home, he had a brainstorm. Babies need time to learn how to use their limbs, he reasoned, so maybe it will take a little bit of time.

He raced back and practiced by attaching a pencil to the end of the arm and drawing. "Within hours he could sign his name to a check well enough to get past the average shop," says Rawlins. "The arm was absolutely brilliant."

With its manipulator, MANTIS went on to become the most successful manned submersible ever with more than 30 produced. In his 15 minutes of fame, Hawkes piloted a MANTIS for stunts in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Advanced versions of the arm containing acoustic force- and tactile-feedback systems have appeared on ROVs such as the BANDIT and SUPERBANDIT. And NASA evaluated the technology for possible use on the space station.

Unconventional thinker. What's the true secret to all this success? Those who know Hawkes note his ability to look at problems from a different point of view.

"He thinks laterally," says Lawrence. "He works at right angles to the general engineering community," says Walsh. Adds Robison, "Graham has the most facile mind of any engineer I've ever met." Hawkes' own theory? "The industry is a little slow," he proposes modestly. "Aviation was always a technology-limited industry, but undersea, we're still imagination limited."

Maybe, but not due to a lack of imagination on his part. Even now, neck deep in the design of Deep Flight 2, Hawkes is brainstorming ideas for snow ski boots and a "Remote Reality" concept to bring an immersive, virtual underwater experience to the general public. "You'd be able to swim with a great white shark, that sort of thing," he explains excitedly.

He pauses and thinks about his past designs and what else the future may bring. "Really, I can't figure out why we've been left alone to do this," he says finally. "We're having so much fun, it just doesn't feel natural."

Deep flights of fancy

Deep Flight 2 (DF-2) might only exist as photorealistic renderings spit from a CAD file. But that hasn't stopped Graham Hawkes from brainstorming variations on the theme.

Hydrohawk is the sports car of the family, while Hydrotow is the shuttle bus or tourist vehicle. All will share advanced fly-by-wire flight controls--easily altered with software--and modular one-person pressure hulls.

Power is a serious issue. Hawkes sees sticking with lead-acid jell batteries until more exotic types, under development for electric cars, become freely available.

The base model DF-2 will be built in stages, with three different depth-rated versions: 0-3,000 ft., 0-20,000 ft., and 0-37,000 ft. While they will share a common external shell, the pressure hulls would vary, consisting respectively of fiberglass, titanium, and finally ceramic composites for the full-ocean depth model. Modular components will let them be reconfigured easily, like "transformer" toys. Move a couple thrusters, for instance, and two DF-2s could join to a central work pod complete with manipulators.

Timing? "We could build the 3,000-ft version tomorrow," says Hawkes, "and once funded, go for the ceramic 37,000-ft version."

The Engineering Behind the Arm

"The manipulator is probably the nicest work I've ever done," says Graham Hawkes of his patented Human Equivalent Arm. That's quite a statement from an engineer world renowned for his submersible designs.

Developed for MANTIS and modified and perfected for the BANDIT ROVs, Hawkes' manipulator incorporates several revolutionary ideas not found in any other mechanical arm in the world. Among them:

Sea water hydraulic system. "You don't worry about leaks, and the materials are already ocean compatible," he says. "Why fight the ocean?"

  • Closed hydraulic system with single-acting rams. One end of the slave- and master-cylinder pistons is exposed to the ambient water pressure. This helps drive the ram in both directions as well as automatically compensating for pressure changes due to depth.

  • Acoustic force-feedback system. To cut weight and complexity, Hawkes patented a means of providing force information to the operator by means of various sounds. "It works incredibly well," says Hawkes. "But marketing it was a nightmare because nobody understood it."

  • Tactile sensors. Output from a small accelerometer attached to the manipulator's tip is converted to sound, supplying a surprisingly sensitive sense of touch. "You could easily hear the difference between various materials you rubbed against," says Sir John Rawlins, former president of the Society for Underwater Technology. "Wood gave a different sound than plastic or steel."

Ultimately, it becomes apparent that one reason Hawkes' manipulator is so good is because he works with his watery environment. "If fish designed a hydraulic system, this is what they would do," he says. "They would not take a system designed for use in the air and bring it under water. That's a terrestrial mentality with waterproofing."

Engineers' Role on an Ocean Planet

Wanted: Rugged, adventurous, and creative engineers for extended exploration of uncharted territory. Risk, reward, both high.

Talk with Graham Hawkes for any length of time, and you'll uncover his love for the ocean--and a frustration with man's biased view of earth. "We think this is a terrestrial planet, and we're wrong," he says. "It's an ocean planet, and we have not acknowledged it yet."

Seventy-one percent of the earth is covered with water. The oceans supply roughly 40% of the oxygen, the same as the rainforests. It's the largest living space and home to the largest animal community.

Ninety-eight percent of the ocean lies between zero and 20,000 feet in depth--the deepest that any current manned submersible can dive. The remaining 2% represents an area equal to the continental US. Yet only about 5% of the ocean has ever been explored. "If I were to walk into the Explorers Club and say, 'I can take you to a place twenty miles from here that nobody has seen before that's full of animals nobody has identified, they'd all jump out of their chairs," says Hawkes. "The reality is, there's almost an infinity of such places.'

One of the objectives of Hawkes' Deep Flight 2 family is to provide full ocean access to more people. He sees the crushing depths of the Marianas Trench--36,198-ft. below the surface--as an engineering issue, not something to fear. "It's a very predictable environment; you know exactly the pressures and stresses," he says. "Depth is strictly a function of material strength and the safety factors we choose."

Opportunities exist worldwide for engineers to help design the machines that open up Earth's final frontier, though money is a problem. "If you say 'explore' you sound as if you're going to have fun, and nobody will take you seriously and fund you," Hawkes says.

The challenges lie in developing silent submersibles and improved vision and sensing systems. "We go down with these noisy, throbbing vehicles, lit up like a Christmas tree, and then come up and say, 'nothing there,'" he says. "It's like exploring the jungle with a marching band. Did you see any tigers? Nope, definitely no tigers in there."

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like