The Newest Fashion for Archaeologists: Wearable Submarines That Allow Them to Explore Shipwrecks

The device looks like an astronauts spacesuit and will allow researchers an unprecedented amount of time on the seafloor

Stuart Westmorland/Science Faction/Corbis

The Exosuit looks like it belongs in outer space. But it's meant for another environment hostile to human life: the sea. Archaeologists are planning to use these suits off the coast of Rhode Island and then in Greece, where they will excavate the wreck where the still-mysterious Antikythera mechanism was found over 100 years ago.

In 1900, when sponge fishermen discovered the wreck, they were only able to spend five minutes there. But they found the mechanism, which researchers trying to figure out what the heck it is describe as "the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world." The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project:

The machine dates from around the end of the 2nd century B.C....Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical "computer" which tracks the cycles of the Solar System.

In 1976, Jaques Cousteau was able to spend a luxurious 10 whole minutes vacuuming up parts of the site. Today's archaeologists will need to dive down to nearly 400 feet to reach the wreck. At that depth, traditional diving methods offer only a limited amount of time and require that divers carefully ascend to avoid serious harm to their bodies. Mark Harris at the New Scientist explains the advantages of the new suit:

The new expedition won't face such time constraints. "With the Exosuit, our bottom time becomes virtually unlimited," says Brendan Foley, co-director of field operations at WHOI's Deep Submergence Laboratory. "Now we can have an archaeologist in the suit for hours, and we'll only have to come up to answer the call of nature.”

One of the main difficulties with the suit is learning how to use the instruments attached to the hands. Designers haven’t been able to create an effective glove for the suit (although it is in development). The suit is equipped with cameras, lights and thrusters at the back, controlled by the diver’s feet. It's also connected to a ship by a cable that provides the suit with power and communication to the world above. 

The suit, still in an experimental stage, will only be available to the archaeologists for a few weeks. The rest of the time, the divers will be using rebreathers to stay at the bottom for 30 minutes at a time. 

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