shell suit

Michelin Man-style suit can take humans to 1,000 feet under the sea

Scuba divers can only go to 200ft under because of intense pressure of water.


Michael Lombardi, dive safety officer for the American Museum of Natural History, trains in the Exosuit. Image: Jim Clark.

SPACE EXPLORATION SEEMS to get all the glory, but there’s another virtually unexplored frontier right here on Earth: the deep sea.

The Exosuit, a 530-pound metal suit, will for the first time allow a human to plunge down to a depth of 1,000 feet without being crushed by the pressure of the ocean.

The aluminum shell looks oppressive and suffocating, but feels weightless once in the water. The diver inside the suit can pick up marine life using robotic claws and has thrusters on the feet to move around.

The Exosuit is a “quantum leap forward in atmospheric diving,” said Michael Lombardi, the American Museum of Natural History’s dive safety officer and the project coordinator for an upcoming expedition, at the museum’s unveiling of the next-generation diving system.


The Exosuit is lifted into a test tank using a crane. Image: Michael Lombardi.

Scuba divers can only go to depths of about 200 feet because of the intense pressure of the water above them. So, scientists have only been able to study the deeper regions of the ocean with remote submarines, where cameras send images back to the surface. But studying the behavior of animals through a television screen is limiting, said John Sparks, a curator in the museum’s Department of Ichthyology.

In particular, scientists want to know more about bioluminescent creatures, those that generate light through chemical reactions in their skin, and inhabit the ocean layers that are cut off from the sun, generally beyond 600 feet. Because these gelatinous animals tend to get crushed when they are brought up in trawlers they are not well-studied. However, by looking at these organisms in their natural environment, scientists hope to understand more about their flashing patterns.

Vincent Pierribone, a research associate at the museum, is more focused on the medical applications of bioluminescent proteins found in these animals and how they can be used to “probe the brain,” he said. These glowing proteins, which only exist in nature, can also be valuable for tagging and tracking cancer cells and tons of other applications in the lab.


Image: Nuytco Research Ltd

The suit can support a diver for up to 50 hours, though most missions would last three to five hours. It only takes 10 minutes to get to 1,000 feet below the surface. A remotely operated vehicle travels alongside the diver, equipped with high-definition video cameras that beam footage back to the surface through fibre optics.

The Exosuit’s first real-world test comes in July when it will be used to explore a place called ‘The Canyons’ off the New England Coast.

The suit was on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City this week.

- Dina Spector

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