Divers Could Become Real-Life Aquamen if This Pentagon Project Works

by ROBERT BECKHUSEN,  |  published on January 3, 2013

Even casual divers know that diving too deep, or surfacing too quickly, can cause a host of complications from sickness to seizures and even sudden death. Now the Pentagon’s scientists want to build gear that can turn commandos into Aquaman, allowing them to plunge into the deeps without having to worry as much about getting ill. (Orange and green tights sold separately.)

According to a list of research proposals from the U.S. military’s blue-sky researchers at Darpa, the agency is seeking “integrated microsystems” to detect and control “warfighter physiology for military diver operations.” Essentially it comes down to hooking divers up to sensors that can read both their bio-physical signs and the presence of gases like nitric oxide, which help prevent decompression sickness, commonly known as “the bends.” If those levels dip too low, the Darpa devices will send small amounts of the gases into divers’ lungs to help keep them swimming.

The agency doesn’t specify what exactly the machine will look like, as it’s still in the research stage, but the plan is to make it portable enough for a diver to carry, of course. Darpa also wants the gear for bomb-disposal units and “expanded special operations.”

For an understandable reason. Decompression sickness can be extremely painful, and potentially lethal to divers in both the civilian world and the military. When underwater, a diver breathing compressed air out of a tank normally absorbs the air into fatty body tissues instead of breathing it all out, which is normally safe. But ascending to the surface too fast after a deep dive can cause those gases to form into bubbles inside the body — imagine yourself as the equivalent of a soda bottle, shaken really fast. That causes the body’s nervous system to go haywire and the joints to freeze up as if they were paralyzed. And that’s in addition to oxygen toxicity, nitrogen narcosis and a nasty problem called high-pressure nervous syndrome. None of these things are very pleasant, let alone for those who make a career deactivating underwater mines.

To avoid these problems, Navy divers are trained in “breathing static gas mixtures at prescribed pressures and durations,” according to the Darpa solicitation, as well as training in practical measures to avoid them, like divers would normally do. But to go further, Darpa’s plan is to use sensors to read “pressure-related physiologic conditions” and provide “constant physiological feedback.”

Then, the system will administer small amounts of nitric oxide into the diver’s lungs, which may reduce the bubbles that cause the bends. To clear up any confusion, nitric oxide — which helps our cells communicate with each other – is a different chemical than nitrous oxide, which is popularly known as a dental anesthetic. Darpa has also experimented with nitric oxide to see if it can prevent hypoxia in aircraft pilots.

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