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maximized for things like filming and adventure tourism. Modern, intuitive control systems and high-resolution sonar allow pilots to focus on avoiding fishing lines and other obstacles that can entangle a sub. And OceanGate’s forthcoming Cyclops 2 will have a seven-inch-thick carbon fiber hull—a first use of the material for a manned submersible, Rush says—allowing it to dive as deep as 3,000 meters. A third Cyclops is planned for depths as great as 6,000 meters.
“Our goal is to get 3 to 5 percent of the remotely operated vehicle market, which is a $1.5 billion market, moving on to $2 billion,” Rush says, adding that it will be easier to compete for jobs at greater depths.
The company aims to equal or beat remotely operated vehicle prices by reducing costs to build and deploy its subs, and maximizing their use. It says the standard commercial rate, including crew provided by OceanGate and supplies, will be about $15,000 a day. Prices will change based on the nature, duration, and location of the charter.
Keeping operations costs low is a particular area of focus for OceanGate. “A lot of subs are expensive because they require expensive ships,” Rush says. “Our fundamental mantra was about mobility—keeping mobile and being able to use what’s called ships of opportunity. Now you can keep your costs variable and you can respond to customer needs in different locations.”
The submersibles—distinguished from submarines, which don’t need support vessels—are launched and recovered by a sinking barge that can be towed out to the dive area. Other submersibles require ships with a heavy crane to pluck them from the water.
To demonstrate its mobility, OceanGate took its Antipodes sub on dives in the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic in less than 30 days in June 2013.
OceanGate is a “sizeable” undertaking, Rush says when describing the cost of developing the experience and technology necessary for such a business. Rush comes from a wealthy family and is an active angel investor and business leader.
He took over as CEO of OceanGate about three years ago (co-founder Söhnlein left the company) and brought in outside investors at that time, “mostly business associates of mine,” he says. The company declines to disclose its total investment, but says “the development of Cyclops has been at a fraction of the cost of any other deep submersible built.”
Working with APL
One way the company has saved money in development is through a novel collaboration with the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), that, like Rush, was looking for a sub to rent. It’s an interesting model of how academic researchers and practitioners can work with a startup to push the state of the art.
In summer of 2010, Rush was approached by the APL, which is in its eighth decade of research focusing on acoustics and oceanography for the Navy. The lab was evaluating sonar from BlueView Technologies, a Seattle company where Rush was on the board of directors until its 2012 acquisition by a Teledyne Technologies subsidiary. The APL had a contract with the Navy to test sonar systems that can detect much smaller objects, and in greater detail, than conventional systems. It needed small, nimble targets for the sonar to find, says APL principal engineer Dave Dyer. Rush’s first sub, the K-350 named Suds—it’s white, like the head of a beer, though it was yellow when he bought it—was a perfect fit. Over several months, he worked with the APL team in the waters of Lake Washington and Puget Sound, later using other OceanGate subs as well.
“They’d ask me to turn, evade them, sit on the bottom to see if they could pick me out of the mud,” Rush says.
Dyer says it would have been difficult to perform the tests using a towed target or an autonomous vehicle. “There are times that it just make sense to have a human in the loop,” Dyer says, making the broader case for manned submersibles. “If we had an issue, we just radioed down and told him what we were looking for. You didn’t have to work out a programming language to get it to do that.”
Having become familiar with the APL, Rush discussed OceanGate’s plan to build a deep-diving submersible with Bob Miyamoto, who heads the lab’s of defense and industry programs. Rush was struggling with how to find the needed engineering expertise “without having to hire people and then lay them off when you’re done using them,” Dyer says. Miyamoto suggested a novel contract engineering arrangement with OceanGate that would see APL staff work on the subs as needed—with the lab billing OceanGate for their hours—and returning to their lab work when they were done.
The engineers don’t have to go far. OceanGate is one of a handful of companies housed in the Collaboratory, APL’s space for industry-academic partnerships inside an angular building tucked under the University Bridge, on the waters of Portage Bay.
Dyer says the lab has done contract work for private companies in the past, but typically through tightly defined contracts, not the open-ended arrangement it has with OceanGate. The contract “basically said, OceanGate wants to do this manned submersible that goes to 6,000 meters, and APL will provide those engineering services as needed by OceanGate,” Dyer says. Since the contract began in 2013, OceanGate has paid APL for “thousands of hours” of work, the company says.
“The university had a little bit of struggle grasping it because it was not a defined thing,” Dyer says. “How do we know when it’s over? How do we know when to bill and stuff like that? It’s been a learning process for both of us over the past two or three years, but I think it actually works out well now to where we can ebb and flow with the needs of OceanGate, in a pretty quick-response timeframe.”
Dyer says other companies are interested in a similar arrangement, and for good reason. The lab is stacked deep with hundreds of scientists and engineers working at the frontiers of everything from medical devices to polar science to remote sensing. It’s also a major producer of intellectual property, with six patents issued and 22 commercialization deals done in the last fiscal year alone.
Dyer says the APL is working with university administration to make the contract-engineering model more routine. “One of the drawbacks to the university is it can take a long time to get something through, especially on a big contract,” he says. “And companies a lot of times don’t have that luxury of waiting… So we’re trying to get it so it’s a much quicker moving organism.”
Inside the Subs
Behind a multi-use building at the Port of Everett, orbital sanders buzz against sailboat hulls. The smell of fiberglass gel coat wafts from a nondescript door. Behind it sits part of the OceanGate fleet: Antipodes, and Cyclops 1.
On a recent visit, the fiberglass fairings for Cyclops 1 are curing under a plastic tent. After a few dives to test the orientation of the sub’s thrusters—the calculations by APL engineers were spot-on—the fairings’ shape was finalized. The fairings, which are external to the hull, are mainly for hydrodynamics (to reduce drag) and aesthetics. OceanGate plans to introduce Cyclops 1 with public viewing Wednesday morning at the Museum of History and Industry on Seattle’s Lake Union.