A Vision of the Future of Manned Submersibles

By Graham Hawkes   HAWX Open Ocean Inc.  January 12, 2017


The submersible business has changed dramatically in recent years. Shaped in the last century by undersea work needs of the offshore oil and gas industry and today by softer emerging recreational markets. The future of personal undersea recreational craft with safe and zero environmental impact is guiding the research and development of the author’s latest projects. Based on available data and the author’s fifty years experience, this paper reviews the basics for a new submersible business. The author is looking for potential revenue sufficient to attract venture capital. The foundational argument is that this is an ocean planet, where the oceans remain underutilized with unlimited room for growth.


In the 1970’s, enthusiasm for developing deep diving lead to the speculation that the future would see lungs flooded with incompressible fluid enabling humans to reach great depths. However, the discovery of successive physiological problems culminated with emergence of High-Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS) effectively ended that research and hope. Divers at Comex laboratory in France set the ultimate pressure depth record at 2,290 feet of sea water (fsw) over thirty years ago, breathing mixed gases while encountering HPNS. While todays SCUBA standards typically sets the maximum depth at only 30 fsw. without need for decompression. It is reasonable to conclude that these depth numbers represent the limits of human entry into the oceans, unless protected from depth-pressure. Therefore only manned submersible vehicles accommodating occupants at one atmosphere can meet the need for direct human access into the oceans at depths below practical diving.

In general, the major barrier to traditional manned submersibles is the high overhead cost of their mothership. Motherships were required to transport and launch traditional submersibles over their target dive site because the subs were to so slow with limited range. Historically, such ships need to be very large and specialized to safely handle the weight of a traditional submersible, today the most capable submersible support ships can cost up to $100,000 per day to use. This model continued unchallenged for decades.

In the 1980’s the introduction of the unmanned Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) proved disruptive to the traditional mothership-submersible business model. The cost advantage was primarily that the ROV did not need such a large or specialized support vessel. Rather, ROV operations could be flexible and rent a suitable workboat on an as needed basis, known as a “ship of opportunity.” And further more, for simple subsea observation, a low cost “eye-ball” ROV could be used without heavy tether management systems, deployed from smaller low cost support vessels. The inevitable outcome being that the traditional business of manned submersibles seemingly dried up over night.

At the beginning of this new century, an unexpected new market opened, a bright spot in a depressed market. The emerging market was for privately owned and operated submersibles carried aboard very large private yachts. Such yachts are known today as Mega Yachts. Mega Yachts are sometimes defined as those costing over $70 million dollars, for example the SV Maltese Falcon (built for the late Tom Perkins). The 293-foot, groundbreaking Maltese Falcon carried the authors DeepFlight Super Falcon on its teak foredeck, which was launched by an electric hoist under the forward lower yardarm. [Note: the name Falcon was a coincidence. The author honored a commitment to name a flying submersible after Sir, Peter Falcon Scott.]


Current State of the Submersible Industry


Based on anecdotal submersible activity data provided by Will Kohnen, Underwater Intervention Conference Chair, it is clear that new builds of submersibles for the (private) experiential market already significantly out number new builds for traditional markets. Showing that the manned submersible business is transforming from its traditional role as subsea work system to recreational markets. It is worth noting that, Atlantis Submersibles by offering low price point ticket rides has exceptional high revenues for an existing submersible business.

Traditional Submersible

Traditional submersible for the purposes of this paper refers to the submersible type that is relatively unchanged since the 1950’s. Their purpose was subsea work for government, science and industry. The traditional submersible was typically equipped for work with manipulators and was usually supported aboard its own dedicated mothership. An example of this model being the ALVIN operated from R/V Atlantis by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The surviving application for traditional submersibles are national undersea science programs of a few wealthy countries, China was the last to join this elite group. These typically larger and deeper HOVs operate with a pilot and two scientists. The surviving few are typically looking for new sources for operational income. While this research class is showing resilience the number of submersibles retiring outnumber the new builds shrinking an already small market.

Diesel Electric Submersibles

This newer larger type is differentiated from traditional submersibles by their surface running capability, usually powered by a snorkeling diesel engine. This type is designed to be launch from shore and operate with a limited range, requiring it to return to base. This method eliminates the overhead cost of a mothership, at least for near shore daily operations. Although there are a few different examples of this type of submersible typically equipped with manipulators for science applications, there are no indications that their numbers will expand substantially, with the possible exception of limited military or tourism applications.

Atmospheric Diving System/Suit (ADS)

This radically different type of working submersible may be thought of as a hard diving suit that maintains a person at one atmosphere thus allowing human access to greater depth. Note the author set a depth record in testing his ADS Wasp at 2000 fsw in Royal Navy test facility in the south of England 1975. Examples of early ADS are the Jim suit, named after its first test diver, Jim Jarrett and the authors Wasp and Mantis. The Wasp and Jim suit were commercially owned and operated for many years by Oceaneering International. All ADS of that era were tethered to provide power, communications and the means for launch and recovery. But ultimately competition from the ROV won and today ADS are almost extinct. An exception are the products from Phil Nytten who has continued innovating the type.

DIY (Personal) Submarines

Perhaps the best examples of personal submersibles were based or inspired by the Kittredge K-250 submarine. The DIY class is supported by enthusiasts who may build and operate submersibles outside industry standards. Their numbers fall below significant business levels. This class appears to be a perennial exception to any rule.

Acrylic Pressure Hulled HOV for the Mega Yacht Market

Notably the media serving Mega Yachts from about 2005 began reporting that the new “toy” of choice was a submersible, although in fact very few yachts own them. Some companies saw the opportunity and designed lighter and more attractive modern acrylic submersibles. Generally, they were built with standard PVHO acrylic hulls to afford attractive visibility. Most commonly the pressure hulls are supplied by Stanley Plastics in the UK with certified depth ratings of 3,000 fsw or less. Examples of this type of construction are those from SEAmagine Hydrospace Corporation, with innovative surface buoyancy systems improving safety and ease of use. A new company in this field is U-Boat Worx who have introduced several smaller modern submersible designs that have won the biggest market share of this emerging market. Note, this type of submersible usually does not have manipulators although as with most rules there are exceptions.

There are reportedly over 7,000 Mega Yachts with about 80 new constructions per year. However only about the largest 10% are big enough to accommodate the modern 13,000-pound submersible, reducing the actual market to a few. The actual cost of the submersible does not seem to be an issue for this market. Rather it seems that the limit to sales is the small size of the actual market and high barriers to use without additional justifying utility. For example helicopters are also a “toy” but can be further justified as transport utility.

New Submersible Types for the Mega Yacht Market

The author designed the DeepFlight series starting with DF1 in 1996 as a wholly new type of submersible firstly to explore underwater flight. That was then further developed

through the Aviator built at Sub Sea Systems to the Super Falcon for the mega yacht market. The Deepflight series used ADS type pressure hulls to reduce the weight by half. The next new type designed by the author was the DeepFlight Dragon again built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies,  created for a smaller footprint on deck.

But this was not enough to keep up with changing yacht designs. To create a sleeker yacht, yachts are now designed with internal garages for “toy” storage. Therefore, submersibles could no longer be housed on an open deck, but need to compete for storage space in an even more restricted below decks garage. The “toy garage” typically opened to the stern or side. The “toys” then launched by overhead horizontal rail crane extending out of the garage bay. Generally the garage is designed to accommodate the owner’s launch, jet skis and other small craft. Hence the author’s designs were as compact as possible with removable sections to fit within the garage space. The most limiting dimension was usually internal height of the garage under the overhead crane. Another response to too many toys has been to have a second utility vessel accompany the main yacht, these were called “shadow boats.” The shadow boat then became the obvious home base for a submersible. But again the market size is very small.


Emerging Markets With Future Potential Growth


Indicators suggest that manned undersea craft will move almost entirely from undersea work markets to personal recreation with ticket and adventure markets leading revenue projections. Several builders such as SEAmagine Hydrospace Corporation are already addressing commercial recreation ventures with larger submersibles. In addition a partnership between Rainbowfish and Hawkes Ocean Technologies has announced a new experiential venture due to start directly serving guests at ocean resorts in 2017.

Submarine Rides and Ticket Sales (low price point undersea experience)

Here is a general assumption that the lower the price point the greater the revenue. This would indicate that the biggest business is in the lowest cost under sea ride/ticket. This seems to be demonstrated by Atlantis Submarines, who have taken many million of people on undersea rides for approximately $100 per person.

Others have offered ticketed ride experiences, but at higher price point such as Stanley Submersibles of Roatan, Honduras.  The higher cost business model is usually an experience to greater depths with fewer people. This price range is comparable to helicopter adventure rides that range from $300-$500 dollars. However, todays total numbers for submersibles operating and selling more expensive rides falls below investment business significance. On the other hand, the helicopter comparable suggest this could be a strong future business.

Adventure Experience

Adventure involves a longer and more immersive experience than the lower cost ticketed ride. A notable comparable for the adventure experience is Virgin Galactic, claiming  several hundred thousand customers each paying $100,000 dollars. Virgin Galactic is an indicator that the adventure business can be significant. While the $20-$40 million charged the seven space tourist by the Russian Space Agency represents the extreme high end.

It is worth noting that a few enterprises have run one off adventures in the deep ocean. Deep Ocean Expeditions charged $60,000 dollars to visit the Titanic. The author has run occasional three day “flight schools” charging $15,000 per student. Again suggest this could be a strong future business.


Major Factors Affecting the Future Submersible Industry

Future Challenge to Low Cost Ticket Sales

Virtual Reality (VR) is going to be a major competitor to the low cost subsea ticket market. It is conceivable that ROV’s with VR camera systems will dive into the deep ocean with customers enjoying the experience via VR at home. That said, the authentic first person experience will remain the most valued experience likely unchallenged by VR.

Breath-Hold Diving

Given we all are naturally able to breath-hold beneath the sea as mammals, such simple and safe but brief diving may be an underutilized method with potential for future cost effective undersea experience. One example of innovative use of human ability to breath-hold is Sea Bob, an unusually powerful swimmer propulsion devise that is already a standard, $12,000 toy on many large yachts. 

Regulations of Manned Submersibles

Safety is the major concern for regulation of submersibles. The industry can be expected to move beyond simple reliance on “certification” standards to “outcome based” rules. Modern rules are more flexible and less likely to lead to unintended consequences as future designs change. As designs change and move outside the protection of existing design based regulation, companies will need to assume a more proactive role in safety.

Mitigating Human Error

Atlantis Submersibles and Sub Sea Systems both have exemplar safety records, each having taken millions of guests safely beneath the sea. They both seem to have created an operational and training culture that focuses on eliminating human error as well as mitigating hardware malfunctions. The area of addressing human operational error is familiar to aviation and will be a new focus for the submersible industry as it seeks to serve increasing numbers of the public.

Regulation for the Environment

Regulations already outlaw small boat anchoring in some protected areas to prevent environmental damage caused by anchors. It is likely that future regulations will protect the environmental from submersibles contacting the ocean floor. Other regulatory restrictions anticipated include prohibiting submersibles with manipulators from diving protected shipwreck sites to prevent removal of artifacts.

Regulation for Pilots (Training)

The author is arguing for pilots of private subs not to follow the traditional submersible model, where the builder issues pilots licenses because this license is inadequate for the inexperienced. The first Wasp pilot licenses issued personally by the author are an example that this traditional model no longer applies. Those Wasp students were employees of Oceaneering and were already qualified diving professionals. The author was simply training to them operate a new type of equipment. When comparing this to aviation practice, the licenses issued would more accurately be “Type Training” certification. This would mean a qualified pilot was now training and qualifying on a different aircraft. As a solution, the author is proposing a multi-part licensing for future members of the public (non-ocean professionals) to become submersible pilots. The proposed licensing program is more comprehensive than the traditional licensing while at the same time having a relatively easy entry point.

Training Program

Part 1. Classroom and/or online instruction with some test establishing general theory and risk education for submersibles designed for an individual with no prior experience. This is the equivalent to “ground school” in aviation as the first step to actual flight lessons. This qualifies another wise inexperienced individual to enter Part 2.

Part 2. Existing commercial submersible manufacturers training. This traditional manufacturers pilot training will reward the student with similar pilots license as previously but restricted to the submersible type. Part 2 combined with Part 1 is therefore a basic submersible pilots license.

Part 3. This advanced level would require a pilot to maintain a logbook to document “log time,” time spent in control of a submersible type. This is equivalent to required minimum time spent flying for aviation as needed to upgrade from private to commercial pilots license for example. Log book minimum requirements could be set by regulators, operators or by insurance. 


Because—unmanned vehicle types will likely be preferred whenever human presence is not essential— the future market for the submersible will be almost exclusively be for human experience or any other purpose where direct human presence is needed.

Therefore the future business of manned submersibles will focus on the one attribute that unmanned systems cannot serve, first person experience. Only with one atmosphere accommodation in manned submersible vehicles can humans access the ocean at depth beyond practical physiological limits.

Until the volume of public participation justifies government investment in new safety and environmental regulation, the industry will need to be self-governing as it moves beyond traditional guidelines. Note minimum environmental impact will become more important as the public understand we are opening a new planetary frontier to human access.

The principle future submersible business will be for safer and environmentally sensitive operations deriving revenues from providing human access into the oceans. Subsea rides returning to point of origin will likely earn the greatest revenues. However ticket rides will face completion from VR products for mass subsea experience. While more immersive and costly (adventure) experiences will be the most valued extending the business away from competion by VR. It is clear to the author that ocean space is our last mysterious frontier with potential for unlimited growth. It will also fuel curiosity and desire for adventure. Rewarding the emerging business that are focused on public access using submersible.

© Graham Hawkes   HAWX Open Ocean Inc.  January 12, 2017