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The Human-powered Submarine

An early prototype in the design process, without the sophisticated oar-structure

An early prototype in the design process, without the sophisticated oar-structure

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Swedish designer Milko Ozlu has always been intrigued by the concept of the powered exoskeleton and body amplifiers. When the US Military experimented with the springwalker concept in the late 1980s, Ozlu was fascinated, though it was long before he studied for his BA in industrial design at Konstfack in Stockholm. His ideas followed through and when he was studying for his masters degree at the vehicle design department of the world-renowned Royal College of Art in London, it resulted in one of the most interesting degree projects we’ve seen – the U-Scull, a new type of human powered sports-submarine that operates in shallow depths.

We fully expected that Milko would have been inspired in his work by the Drebbel submarines built in 1620 ()but that was not the case. “The Drebbel submarine was something that I ran into when I did research for my final year degree work but I had no knowledge of it when I first started the submarine project,” Milko told Gizmag.

“There was another human powered submarine from history that really fascinated me – the US Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley, that was powered by eight men. That was really interesting in light of the work I’d done, but the birth of my idea and inspiration for the design came from elsewhere.”

“The idea came from a metaphor project at RCA (Royal College of Art) where you pick a word and design a vehicle based on that word. Usually, a design is made to service a perceived need in the market or for to cater to a specific target group of people. In this case we were asked to understand the spirit of our inspiration, in my case the word “rhythm” This word led me to an image in my head of a vehicle echoing the rhythm of the passengers inside.”

“This in turn, became the vision of a “swimming machine” – a body amplifier - and part of that inspiration was the springwalker.

“I was very intrigued by the springwalker as a transportation device and I had a vision of something similar for underwater use – something that used mechanics and technology that harbours and amplifies the power of the people inside it.”

But for my degree project the last thing I wanted to do was an engineering exercise. Something like a submarine, can be designed almost purely with mathematical equations. I wanted to keep it at a visionary level, tight to the theme of the body amplifier “.

Two oarsmen power the Uscull, with a sliding seat motion similar to that of sculling. It’s not expected that a great deal of expertise or tuition would really be necessary for someone to power the Uscull, but in the initial stages one of the prerequisites would be a scuba diving license and a short introduction course. After that, the two passengers would be ready for the water.

Rowing is widely recognised as a sport that optimises the full output of the human body. “Successful rowing requires full output of the human body”, says Milko, “and the sliding seats of sculls facilitates extremely efficient and dynamic movement of the human body for maximum power output. The motion and rhythm of rowing is the most efficient and dynamic movement the human body can make. This is why rowing was chosen to power the Uscull.”

“I envision the target group for Uscull as people who enjoy water activities, below or above surface,” says Milko. “As the vehicle has clear parallels to scuba diving and rowing, users with either background could make a smooth transition into the Uscull. The underwater aspect adds a third dimension to rowing,” adds Milko.

But Milko’s greatest hope is that the Uscull will spawn a sport similar to rowing.

“As a sporting and fitness-related activity, I see two scenarios,” says Milko.

“The first is a rowing club scenario: as a member in a boat-club one could use the Uscull together with another rower. The boat-club is not only a social setting for practicing the sport but it also provides facilities for off-season training and instructions on how to best use the Uscull.”

Milko’s ultimate hope is that Uscull rowing could develop into a super sport league, with professional athletes. “Akin to, or perhaps in league with other sports that are developing into the Formula 1 of human powered vehicles,” he said.

“In this regard, the Uscull could develop into a sporting event that is a showcase for technological innovation as well as human strength and endurance.”

“I see it as a sport where the technology and materials are constantly being updated and apart from the national leagues there would be the opportunity to compete internationally in the summer Olympics!,” said Milko. He foresees a similar regatta format to rowing with straight-line races over various distances.

The first design for the Uscull, as seen on these pages, was developed along what Milko calls, “Olympic or Formula 1 lines” – a high-budget scull for elite athletes. A technologically advanced vehicle designed for speed.

“The major differences between the professional, competition scull (pictured here) and the boatclub version is that the later one would be cheaper, smaller and have a smaller turning radius” said Milko.”

In its Olympic guise, the 9.5 metre-long Uscull employs the very latest in energy-efficient technologies, such as a “nano-scale, Teflon-coated, artificial sharkskin surface to minimise the frictional losses from surface drag.”

The "top of the range" Uscull is entirely covered in this material, apart from the glass areas that offer the rowers an underwater vista rarely available to the public.

“To give the users a sensation of normal rowing, with resistance isolated to one stage of the rowing cycle, and to prevent the oars from killing the speed on their forward pull, I developed a "sling-shot" type mechanism, that forces the oars through the water with the energy stored from the rowers pull. And the folding blades are essentially to prevent the scull from braking on the oars forward rotation.”

“Only the “loading” of the oars require force. This gives the oarsmen an opportunity to prepare for the dynamic stroke that will load the mechanism. Furthermore, all glass areas can be replaced with translucent sharkskin panels for increased performance during Olympic competition races, for example. In these cases cameras would aid the rowers to align the nose with the target.”

One of the obvious questions was “how much would Uscull cost?”, a question Milko leaves open. “It all depends on production methods, development costs and material use”

“If I built it with all the materials I’d like to use, as a showcase of modern materials and technology, it’d probably cost more than a Formula 1 car,” he laughs.

Unfortunately for the Uscull and all those who no-doubt are reading this article and drooling at the possibility of obtaining one, Milko’s obvious talents have already been acquired. Immediately upon graduation he was hired as an automotive designer by the Nissan Design Centre in Tokyo where he has found a new home. “I love my work and I have a love-at-first-sight relationship with Tokyo.” said Milko.

Will the Uscull ever come off the drawing board and into reality?

“I would love to turn this vision into reality as that would be really fulfilling. As a designer, seeing real, usable objects take shape from your sketches and models is one of the greatest feelings. However, to realize a vehicle of this scale you need funding. As far as U-scull goes, it will stay on my drawing table for a while” he laughs.

“There are many ways the spirit of my project could proceed - submarine journeys offer a new perspective on underwater life and it would be quite viable to build a comparatively cheap underwater vehicle for safely observing sea life in a dry environment – after all, that’s something most people can only experience in zoo’s. Today, submarine journeys are only available to a chosen few.”

Milko Ozlu can be contacted on uscull@home.se for those who wish to discuss the possible commercial development of his project.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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