US Navy engineers have developed a next-generation helmet, showing divers live information via a head-up display
On the sea floor, seeing clearly is difficult. For divers working at depths of 100 metres or greater, every extra bit of information or assistance can go a long way.
With robots, ROVs and more sophisticated equipment, it is easy to forget that human divers still have to perform a number of complex subsea tasks. While the industry’s focus on safety has undoubtedly improved over the past few decades, the pace of updating equipment and work processes has remained slower.
But with many new innovations aimed specifically at commercial divers, the pace seems to be changing. InnovOil has already featured Etro’s heated diving suits and Photosynergy’s Lightpath umbilical system – and June brought news of an intriguing new piece of kit from the US Navy.
Engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) have devised a diving helmet with an in-built head-up display (HUD). The high-resolution Divers Augmented Vision Display (DAVD) is embedded directly inside the helmet and allows users to see far greater information and detail on their task, from a number of different sources.
This system is capable of displaying sector sonar – a topside view of the diver's location and dive site – as well as text messages, diagrams, photographs and even augmented reality videos, and all in real time.
The addition of real-time operational data should help divers to work faster and safer, offering more information than pre-dive briefings alone. The HUD can help guide them to the worksite or a target, display details about the area or piece of equipment and help increase awareness of other potentially hazardous features around them.
All of this can be configured by each diver – e.g. the positions of each data feed – or they can simply turn off the HUD when it is not required.
The DAVD was devised by Underwater Systems Development Project Engineer Dennis Gallagher and his team. Gallagher added: “By building this HUD directly inside the dive helmet instead of attaching a display on the outside, it can provide a capability similar to something from an 'Ironman' movie. You have everything you visually need right there within the helmet.” Tony Stark would indeed be proud.
Naval Sea Systems Command (00C3) is also developing enhanced sensors – such as miniaturised high-resolution sonar and enhanced underwater video systems – to enable divers to view higher-resolution images up close, even with almost no water visibility. In future, these underwater vision systems could then be fed directly into the DAVD HUD.
Commercialising DAVD or a similar system could have a major impact on divers in the oil and gas sector in particular. Given their need to locate and modify complex subsea equipment in difficult conditions, operators could improve the efficiency and safety of manned dives. As Reddit user and diver gnar-dar commented: “It’s about time! I worked as a commercial diver for 7 years wearing these exact Kirby Morgan dive helmets... So much bottom time is wasted simply trying to find the worksite, with someone on a radio on surface watching you on a sonar feed and trying to relay it to you.”
So far, the engineering team has demonstrated the technology to more than 20 US naval divers. Although full deployment looks to be a year or two away, the team is now working on phase two, where components are being designed to include both helmet systems and full face masks. Divers are scheduled to conduct in-water simulation testing in October 2016.
Phase three is set to begin in 2017 to harden the system for expanded field testing with various US naval commands.