No one with red blood in their veins buys a sports car and hands the keys to a chauffeur, so one of the barriers to truly personal submarining has long been the need for a trained pilot, not to mention the massive logistics involved in transporting, garaging and launching the underwater craft ... until now. Pioneering underwater aviation company DeepFlight is set to show an entirely new type of personal submarine at the 2014 Monaco Yacht Show next week, launching the personal submarine era with a submersible that's reportedly so easy to pilot that it's likely to create a new niche in the tourism and rental market.
When launched next week, the DeepFlight Dragon will become the most compact, lightweight personal submarine on the market, and has been designed to be so intuitive to use that users will be able self-pilot the craft with minimal instruction. This new level of user-friendliness is expected to take DeepFlight's underwater craft beyond the domain of the superyacht owner and into the resort and tourism industry for the first time.
DeepFlight founder Graham Hawkes spoke to Gizmag prior to the Monaco Yacht Show to explain the upcoming launch.
"The DeepFlight Dragon came about because I was at a conference for electric aircraft and everyone was enamored with the idea of building a full-sized drone that people could fly easily," said Hawkes. "It suddenly occurred to me that I could do that underwater, now, and I'd better do it pretty quickly because if I didn't do it, someone else would. So we put patents in, and the result is the DeepFlight Dragon."
"The most significant feature of the Dragon is its positive buoyancy. That is, if you lose power, or switch it off, you come back to the surface, as opposed to sinking to the bottom.
"That's very different from being in control of a normal submarine or submersible where you open the valves and make it heavy, and you sink. If, as I'm afraid to say happened in one of my dives a long time ago, when a knob came off the valve that controls the air, you keep sinking, and I can tell you, that is not a good feeling.
"The DeepFlight Super Falcon (pictured above) was our first positively buoyant craft. If you get in one, and you've previously flown an aircraft, you'll realize that you're flying an aircraft, just in a different but very similar medium: water. The Dragon is effectively an aircraft. I know we can't use that name, but it is in fact an aircraft for the water.
"So all the controls, everything about the Dragon has been designed for ease-of-use. It is so intuitively easy to use for the uninitiated, that I think this will become the first submarine that can go into a rental program, where a resort can rent it by the hour."
The new Dragon will cost a little less than the company's top-of-the-line model Super Falcon, coming in at US$1.5 million with all the additional gear required for running the craft included. In order to kick-start production of the new series, orders taken at the Monaco Yacht Show will be priced at $1.2 million.
One of the new additions to the support gear for the new DeepFlight Dragon is a new inflatable launch platform.
"The inflatable launch platform was created because we looked at how the craft would be potentially used with its new capabilities, and one of the primary concerns is safety," said Hawkes.
"We don't want anybody hurt and one of the difficulties of a small submersible is that they don't have any freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the deck) and the only way that we could see to ensure the safety of newbies clambering excitedly all over it without anything tipping over, was to put it on a much bigger footprint and to put an inflatable platform underneath it that lifts it out of the water, so that's what we're doing."
Does this mean that DeepFlight will be focusing on the resort and tourism market in the future?
"We want to use the superyacht market to launch us into the future. We're looking to maintain the exclusivity of the product because that's what superyacht owners really want – something that no-one else has. As a buyer said when he picked up his Super Falcon recently, "the value of this is not in how much I have paid for it, but in its rarity."
"There aren't many people right now who are flying underwater. We've trained fewer people to fly these things than there are astronauts. We're keen on removing that limit, and if the new Dragon goes into resorts then that will change things and give more people the experience, but I expect it will be some time yet before production gets to the stage where the price begins to fall markedly.
"Superyacht owners want the best, so we've adopted a bespoke hand-crafted approach similar to the way luxury cars were made in the 1930s. We make the only submersible with a hood ornament – a Falcon which is carved from solid stainless steel.
"The interior is all carbon fiber and it's absolutely gorgeous. The early owners have been pretty happy with their new toys. The first one went to Tom Perkins (one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) and he was delighted, and he ... sets a pretty high standard.
"So we're keeping them handsome and we're intent on creating a series of elegant and beautiful watercraft and we're building a brand that will endure."
Hawkes vision for the future of what he calls the "underwater aviation industry" are optimistic, though he's under no illusions that it will unfold as predicted. "We are in the process of opening up the field of underwater aviation but the time schedule is indeterminate right now. It may not have the same utility that the original aviation industry did 100 years ago, but it has some of the same characteristics, and it's not like there's any shortage of uncharted territory out there to explore. Oceans make up two thirds of the world's surface, so I'm quite not sure why we choose to call it planet 'Earth'.
"If we look back, there are some illustrative similarities between where we're at now and in those early years of aviation. Those early guys were in love with what they were doing, just as we are, but they weren't entirely sure how things would unfold and what the full benefits of their work would be.
"In those early days, those aviation pioneers were being asked by newspaper reporters just what use aviation would be, and what future they saw for the aeroplane. At the very dawn of aviation, the future developments weren't particularly obvious. You couldn't carry passengers or carry any cargo, and it wasn't until war broke out that we could see the first real benefit of the aeroplane, which was for aerial reconnaissance."
"When Marconi invented radio, he thought that it's biggest benefit would be for ship-to-shore communications, and the aviation pioneers really didn't know what would follow, and I suspect, neither do we.
"I am certain that the full utility of what we have is still to reveal itself. Underwater aviation is presently still in the realm of toys for very wealthy people, but that's just the low hanging fruit, and where it goes from here, and how it develops for the general population, we're not yet sure."
The all-electric DeepFlight Dragon is designed specifically for easy use from yacht or shore to explore the twilight zone down to 400 ft (120 m). At 3,968 lb (1,800 kg) and under 5 ft (1.5 m) in height, the Dragon is less than half the weight of competing submarines and readily fits into existing yacht garages or deck areas. Like all DeepFlight personal submarines, the Dragon is positively buoyant, meaning the craft automatically floats to the surface. And the Dragon is the first DeepFlight craft to use vertical thrust, thus enabling a hover capability.
The two-person Dragon is the only personal submarine which has enough power to rely solely on vertical thrust to dive, eliminating the complexity of the ballast and drop weight systems that all competing submersibles use to get heavy and sink to depth. This newest DeepFlight craft also uniquely offers the DeepFlight Dive Manager, a proprietary technology that monitors and manages critical functions, therefore eliminating the need for a professional pilot in a third seat.
DeepFlight was founded in 1996 by world-renowned engineer, Graham Hawkes, with the goal of innovating underwater craft to open up human access to the oceans. The company has made significant technological breakthroughs, including creating the only positively buoyant personal submarines and applying the principles of flight underwater. In 2012, the company transitioned from a research and development organization to focus on commercializing its series of advanced personal submarines designed, built and operated for the private owner and recreational markets, including the superyacht and tourism industries.
DeepFlight has over 45 years experience innovating the most advanced underwater craft, including its flagship craft, the DeepFlight Super Falcon, which pioneered underwater flight. The DeepFlight Dragon makes a further breakthrough in introducing the power and on board monitoring and management systems that enable people to pilot the craft themselves with minimal instruction, and to enjoy underwater flight with hovering capability.
Owners of DeepFlight submarines include, among others; Sir Richard Branson; venture capitalist, Tom Perkins; and Red Bull Founder, Dietrich Mateschitz. DeepFlight recently delivered a DeepFlight Super Falcon to Laucala Island in Fiji, which is the second resort to own a DeepFlight submarine for guest experiences.
The company is currently raising funds via crowdfunder where potential investors can view the DeepFlight prospectus.
A demonstration of DeepFlight's Super Falcon personal submarine can be seen in the video below.