In 2006, Chief Navy Diver Daniel Jackson completes a successful certification dive of the Atmospheric Diving System (ADS) aboard the special mission charter ship M/V Kellie Chouest off the coast of La Jolla, Calif.

Advanced Atmospheric Diving Suits
Tech Level: 12
Extreme Depth Atmospheric Diving Suits
Tech Level: 16

Atmospheric Diving Suits (ADS) are also sometimes called diving armors, iron dukes, iron mikes, hardsuits, and JIM suits, the latter two being names of specific models that are occasionally used as generic labels. They are also sometimes described as humanform submersibles.

These are hard-shelled, environmentally-sealed, highly-articulated full-body armors. They are reinforced against the pressures at extreme depths, allowing a single operator to work and maneuver in surface-normal pressure even thousands of feet down. They often have their own dedicated motors for maneuvering, ballast tanks, rebreathers, onboard power supplies, heaters, sensors, and so on. They are in essence small submarines shaped around the human body.

Science fiction fans may note some parallels between Atmospheric Diving Suits and the high-tech battle armors of futuristic fiction. Indeed, ADS technology is probably the closest current real-world capabilities can come to that ideal, and if those armors ever do become a reality, at least some of its precursor technology will be found in today's ADS systems.

ADS systems are armors in a very real sense; they protect the operator from harmful outside forces, primarily the crushing pressure of deep ocean depths. Today's most advanced ADS systems can operate at depths of up to 2300 feet, compared to the 300 foot maximum depth unarmored divers are usually restricted to. Because conditions inside the suit are maintained at surface-normal pressures, potential depth complications like nitrogen narcosis and the need for lengthy decompression periods are avoided altogether.

They use water-filled rotary joints that allow the user to move his limbs without compromising the suit's pressure resistance. Though articulation and maneuverability of the limbs have greatly improved with new models, full motion is still somewhat restricted and often very stiff. Gloves at extreme depths are as yet highly impractical, so powered mechanical grabbers or claws are used at the ends of the arms instead.

The suits are made from advanced materials with high strength-to-weight ratios and can avoid stress damage at operational depths despite their relative thinness. In suits in use in the past several decades, this has included forged magnesium, cast aluminum, and glass-reinforced plastic. Portholes and faceplates are made of thick, pressure-resistant armored glass or plastic.

ADS systems often operate with umbilicals to a surface support vessel that supply power, communications, and a means of retrieval. The armors have their own back-up on board power supply in the form of batteries that can last from several hours up to several days depending on the model. Besides running communications and the rebreather systems, on board power is also dedicated to heaters to keep the diver at a comfortable temperature and spotlights to help him see.

Modern Atmospheric Diving Suits use rebreather systems with back-up emergency air supplies that in some cases can last up to 48 hours. However, they are usually designed for missions of six to eight hours maximum, as use of the bulky suit can greatly fatigue divers.

Some Atmospheric Diving Suits have inboard propeller mounts for maneuvering, while others have modular 'thruster packs' of several articulated propellers on arms radiating from the suit's backpack. Not all ADS systems have these additional maneuvering options, however.

ADS systems require a great deal of support, usually a several man support crew as well as staging rigs and winches in addition to the suit and diver. This does not mean that suits are restricted only to certain ships and theaters of operation, however. The US Navy's ADS 2000 system has been engineered to be broken down and flown on military and commercial cargo aircraft to various rescue sites as needed.

Tech Level: 12

Information about the possibilities of future advancements in ADS systems is practically non-existent online. What follows is mostly speculation on the part of the author.

As more and more of the world's economy becomes tied up in the oceans and its resources, the need for deep-diving operations that cannot be handled by autonomous vehicles or bulkier submersibles will become more common. This vital niche will be served by ADS systems and will prompt their refinements and improvements in the coming decades. These missions may include research, rescue, repair, inspection, survey, and military operations.

Some of these advancements may simply incorporate existing technology already in use in other fields; others may need to wait for advancements in other fields to come into full bloom first before they're adopted to ADS systems; still others may be developed specifically for these advanced diving armors. These may include:

-- Advanced Materials: Stronger, more lightweight materials may be incorporated into the suits, allowing them to withstand more pressure and dive to greater depths without compromising diver safety. These materials could include, but are not limited to, advanced composites, carbon nanotubes, graphene, and for faceplates, transparent aluminum.

-- Decreased Bulk and Greater Ergonomics: advanced materials as well as continual improvements to current designs will likely continue the trend of the ADS systems becoming sleeker and less bulky, at least to a point. Advances in joint design will also allow much greater freedom of movement for the diver, with the ideal of enabling almost the same kind of agility a diver has on land.

-- Improved Power Supplies: advanced batteries and energy storage devices such as ultracapacitors can greatly increase a suit's battery life and available power, allowing it to stay submerged for much longer and to operate with much more autonomy underwater without the need for power umbilicals to a support ship. Greatly increased available battery life would also allow it to wander much further afield from the position of its support ship if needed.

-- Heavy Duty Maneuver Packs: If increased battery life allows the ADS to operate for an extended period of time without the need for umbilicals to its support ship, a means of covering greater distances underwater may be desirable to increase options during certain missions, especially rescue, research, and military operations. These would include larger, more robust, modular propeller rigs with their own dedicated motors and power supply.

-- Suit Computer: already integrated into some suits in a limited way, an advanced suit computer combined with an array of internal sensors would monitor all aspects of both suit operations and the operator's vital signs, and alert both the user and the support ship of any significant developments. In the case of suits with greater range, the computer would also handle mapping and navigation.

-- Digital Heads-Up Display

-- See-Through Digital Display: integrated into the helmet's transparent visor.

-- Speech-Recognition Software: to allow the operator to give commands to the suit hands-free.

-- Advanced Sensors: These could include sensitive hydrophones, sonar, radar, low-light imaging, and thermal imaging. Such sensors could prove especially valuable for research or military operations.

-- Powered Exoskeleton: This technology is already being actively researched by the US military for battlefield use. If incorporated into an ADS the operator would be able to move and maneuver with much greater ease as the exoskeleton would handle all the actual lifting and exertion as it followed the user's movements. Suits with such exoskeletons can be operated for a much longer time without having to worry about fatigue. The exoskeleton can also make considerably greater strength available to the operator, which could prove very useful in repair and rescue missions.

-- Articulated Gauntlets: As an outgrowth of exoskeleton and robotics technology, ADS systems of the future may sport actual hands instead of gripper claws. These would be armored gauntlets fitted around the user's hand, and powered like the exoskeleton to follow the movements of the operator's fingers. Individual fingers could be fitted with specialized tools already attached as the job required.

-- Improved Diver Accommodations: With greater on board power supplies and more robust maneuvering systems, an ADS could become a true vehicle in its own right, and some very advanced suits may be designed for extended operations away from a support vessel for substantial amount of time--perhaps 24 hours or more. In these cases, the interior operation space would be reworked, much more with the diver's comfort in mind in order to keep him alert and productive. Improved ergonomics and padding would go a long way toward this, but may also include a sufficient food and water supply (or even recycling), waste evacuation means (even if it is just an absorbent garment like astronauts use in space suits), and medical supplies.

-- Artificial Gills: Very advanced future ADS systems may supplement its onboard air supply by cracking oxygen right from the seawater around it. This would likely be used in conjunction with bottled air and rebreathers, as opposed to replacing them. If such a system is used, an ADS could keep its diver supplied with breathable air as long as its power and CO2 scrubbers lasted.

-- Submersible Staging: In the real world, ADS systems have been operated almost exclusively from surface ships. However, future submersibles and submarines could be designed to accommodate one or more Atmospheric Diving Suits. This has the obvious advantage of keeping the diver much closer to his support vessel, greatly reducing potential risk and increasing total work time at any particular underwater site. These submersible staging systems could take the form of an airlock, with the lock space itself serving as the ADS support room. Or it could use suit ports, where the suits are attached directly to the outer hull of the vessel via a hatch on their backs. The diver would enter the ADS through this back hatch, seal the suit, and initiate a de-clamping sequence which would detach it from the submersible.

Tech Level: 16

As the technology continues to improve over the next century and beyond, its possible that with very advanced materials, designs, and power sources, ADS systems could reach a point where they could dive to depths of 20,000 feet or beyond. These very advanced diving armors would probably resemble some aspects of the powered armors of science fiction--probably still bulky, but sleeker, streamlined, and far more capable in many of its systems than the ADS units of today.

However, at the Tech Level where its thought that this may become possible (16), robotics and underwater autonomous vehicles will likely have advanced to the point that there would be very little they couldn't do in place of a human diver. There would seem to be little need to risk a human diver at such dangerous depths if not necessary. Such extreme depth ADS systems may be used only for certain select purposes, such as research or military operations.

Iron Man's Hydro Armor, an example of a futuristic ADS system, can operate superheroically at depths of over 15,000 feet. Image and character copyright Marvel Entertainment.


Article added 21 March 2012