by Nur Hussein, staff writer
This story is like something right out of a science fiction novel: a crack team of scientists invent an Iron Man-like exosuit, and said exosuit will be used to recover fragments of a 2000-year old mechanical computer from the bottom of the ocean. This isn’t a made-up story though, this is one of the instances where truth is far more exciting than fiction. Scientists and engineers from Canadian company Nuytco Research Ltd. have invented a high-tech diving suit for an extraordinary mission: to recover fragments of Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient computer from a bygone civilisation, and perhaps even a second device that may be lying on the seafloor.
First, a bit of background on the Antikythera Mechanism. In the year 1900, Greek fishermen found the wreck of an ancient ship off the coast of the island of Antikythera. Salvaged from that wreck were parts of an intricate device, constructed from complex bronze gears. Initially it went unnoticed; the wreckage also held various treasures such as jewelry, statues and coins with which archaeologists occupied themselves with. It was only in 1951 was the device investigated in detail. Scientists piecing together the parts discovered that it was an analog computation machine, designed to calculate astronomical events such as the movement of sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. It was used to predict solar eclipses, and even calculated when the ancient Olympic Games were to be held. The device dates to the year 1BC, and the extraordinary machine is often described as the oldest known mechanical computer.
Pieces of the machine have been salvaged over the decades, including from an expedition by the legendary marine explorer, Jacques Costeau. In 1976, he recovered more fragments that led to scientists being able to more accurately date the machine. 82 such pieces have been found, and are currently at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
However, the wreck lies deep in the ocean floor; at over 390 feet. At that depth, it is extremely risky for divers to attempt further salvage. Due to the sensitive nature of the artifacts, robotic submersibles have limited capabilities for more search and recovery missions.
This is where the Exosuit comes in. It is an advanced pressurized diving suit made from aluminium alloy, weighs 530 pounds, and is equipped with thrusters that lets it maneuver underwater. The 1.5 million dollar suit was developed from the work of Phil Nuytten, a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur who founded Nuytco Research Ltd. It is packed to the brim with gadgets for deep-sea exploration, and it has been described as a “wearable submarine”. Normally, divers need to take extra care at great depths; the time divers can spend underwater is limited because of the danger of “the bends”, or decompression sickness. However, the Exosuit is pressurized and sealed, so the wearer is protected from the bends. It provides the wearer with 5 hours of air, making it possible to do extensive salvage work at great depths like never before.
The suit itself looks like a bulky, a bit like a spacesuit. The joints are rotatable, a unique mechanism invented by Nuytten that gives this suit its extra mobility and articulation. It is equipped with four thrusters that are operated via foot pedals. The thrusters provide both vertical and horizontal movement, allowing the wearer to move about effortlessly in any direction.
To assist the mission, the suit has video, voice and data recorders which is uploaded via a tethering cable. It even allows for remote thruster operation by the crew on the surface to help the diver do complex operations. Graspers are attached to the tips of the arms that can be used for delicately removing artifacts. It comes equipped with a rebreather for removing carbon dioxide from the air supply, and it comes with backup battery power in case of emergencies which can keep almost the entire suit operational (save the thrusters).
Interestingly enough, the suit was originally intended to operate in New York water treatment plants and belongs to civil engineering firm J.F.White. It is now however on loan, and will be used in the Antikythera expedition led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts. At the WHOI, it is currently being tested before the excavation attempt goes underway. The excavation team has been training to use the suit, and according to the team’s diving specialist Phil Short, takes some getting used to. Scientists believe that besides the already discovered fragments of the Antikytheran machine, there may be a second such device waiting to be found. These salvage missions will change how we retrieve things from under the deep sea, with the help of such high-tech diving suits.
Further information about the Antikythera expedition can be found at the WHOI website.
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Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein