Know the difference between a submarine and a submersible? Planning an underwater expedition and need to get a landlubber crew to the deep? Here’s a beginner’s guide to human-occupied submersibles to get started.
The history of ocean exploration is well known: the descent of the Bathysphere, Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, and the discovery of the RMS Titanic wreck are familiar to most. But what options still exist for humans to explore the oceans in person? Only 5% of the ocean, the earth’s largest habitat, has been explored. Humans have a long way to go; what technology exists to continue to explore and push the limits of human understanding?
Whereas submarines are fully autonomous large vessels offering long-term living space for many people, manned submersibles (subs) are small and require surface support, but are highly versatile. Research institutions, governments, and private companies around the world have built submersibles primarily to conduct oceanographic and archaeological research underwater first-hand.
(Left to Right) Cutaways of a submarine and a submersible
As new technologies develop, filmmakers, marine resource prospectors and tourism outfits are using subs to gain access to previously unreachable parts of the planet. Though each sub is unique and adaptable for use across industries, there are several common designs.
Spherical & Hemispherical Dome Submersibles
This style of sub allows for the most immersive underwater experience ranging from depths of 200-1000m for multiple pilots and passengers. The large field of view makes these subs ideal platforms for filmmaking and photography as well as conducting research and exploratory missions. In addition to use by scientific institutions, these subs are also increasingly built by for-profit companies and purchased by private individuals.
Deep Submergence Vehicles
Almost exclusively built by national governments, Deep Submergence Vehicles (DSVs) are the “space shuttles” of the sea, built to push the limits of human exploration of the sea and reach 4,500-11,000m. Currently, China, Japan, Russia, France and the US own and operate DSVs in partnership with scientific institutions. To withstand the intense pressure of the deep, windows are small and limit the view outside. Sampling equipment, like manipulator arms and pressurized containers to collect samples are common on these subs, often used in tandem with Remotely-Operated Vehicles (ROVs).
Built more like a plane than a submersible, these subs “fly” through the water, offering a unique exploratory experience. Capable of higher speeds and greater maneuverability than traditional bulbous subs, these winged subs can also be launched without surface support. Diving up to 200m, this type of submersible attracts a market of private individuals, allowing thrill-seeking exploration enthusiasts an unusual glimpse of the underwater world.
The workhorses of the sea, commercial subs are built to assist in rescue and salvage operations, oilrig inspection and maintenance, seafloor mineral resource development and film and data collection. For the most part, these subs are owned by private companies and contracted by government, military, and scientific institutions. Highly maneuverable to enable underwater work, these subs carry one or two pilots and reach depth ranges from 50-1000m.
These common submersible designs may be found exploring the ocean in every corner of the planet, and new designs continue to be developed to reach new depths and achieve innovative goals. With so much of the earth’s largest habitat unexplored and unknown, the future of human exploration of the ocean using manned submersibles promises to be an exciting one!
Photo credits: Manned Underwater Vehicles Committee’s Sub Database
Education and Outreach Coordinator
Blue Marble Exploration
Brooklyn, NY, USA