Pathfinder subs would crawl along the ocean floor


March 8, 2011

Philip Pauley's proposed Pathfinder submarines would be able to crawl along the sea floor, or move through the water when necessary

Philip Pauley's proposed Pathfinder submarines would be able to crawl along the sea floor, or move through the water when necessary

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The Transatlantic Seafloor Research Challenge is not a real competition, but that hasn't stopped British designer Philip Pauley from envisioning it, and the watercraft that would take part in it. If it were to exist, the challenge would require underwater vehicles to cross from the UK to the US using whatever route their team members thought was the quickest, but they would have to stay in physical contact with the sea floor for as much of the distance as possible. Pauley's Pathfinder submarines would be equipped with wheels or tracks for trundling along the bottom on most of the crossing, but would also theoretically be able to propel themselves up through the water when necessary.

The designer estimates the trip taking between two and four weeks, during which time the submarines would maintain an average depth of at least 4,000 meters (2.5 miles). They would not be allowed to surface, but would instead be followed by topside support vessels that monitored their activities, and supplied life support and battery recharging power via umbilical cables. The support vessels would also be equipped with ROVs (underwater remote-operated vehicles), to assist the submarine crews in emergencies.

The Pathfinders themselves would be 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) in length, and would support a three-person crew. A lithium battery system would provide power for the wheels/tracks, and for the two-to-four side thrusters and rear propeller. All waste generated by the crew would have to be contained within the vehicle.

While the Transatlantic Challenge will presumably never happen, Pauley told us that he invented it as "a narrative to try to drive interest into the concept and engage investors." Instead of winning races, he sees the subs being used more for scientific research and exploration.

When we asked about possible positive buoyancy issues with all those big fat tires, he replied that his hope is that they would be semi-solid. He admitted, however, that the optional heavy tracks could pose a negative buoyancy problem, and were pictured mostly to grab the attention of potential military customers. The windows, he added, were just included for wider audience appeal, and would not be part of an actual Pathfinder.

Given how such large windows would likely stand up to the pressure two and a half miles under the sea, that's probably for the best.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

If this is a joke what is the punchline?

Michael Mantion

I love submarines, but I can\'t possibly conceive of what is to gain by rolling along the bottom. A much more scaled down competition involving Autonomous Underwater Vehicles would be a lot of fun though. The cost (and danger) of hauling humans along on such a trip would be prohibitive. I\'m picturing a disc-shaped AUV with solar cells on top that would periodically surface to charge batteries/gain a GPS fix would be a good contender for a transatlantic voyage.


Why do people bring up solar cells all the time, has there been some advancement in PVs that make solar cells useful? I say a small fast breeder reactor would last much longer and be more useful then silly solar cells.

Michael Mantion

Another way to destroy the sea floor... innovatively are we sentencing our selves to mankindĀ“s colapse !!

Let us live in peace and save children for starving around the world, let countries live independant and promote commerce spetialization instead of invasive unfair globalisation.

We havenĀ“t born yesterday ... !!!

Facebook User

One thing about solar panels- they never experience melt down or China Syndrome and they don\'t generate raidioactive waste.

Nuclear is not the answer. millions of people can\'t even properly handle disposing of dirty oil after maintenance of their machinery- do we really want more nuclear/chemical energy and not less? Remember BP... New Orleans born, -g


Nice toy design. My son would love it.


Here\'s some folks who actually know how to build subs;

Pauley\'s design gives no thought to hydrodynamics, variable buoyancy and appears to be over-focused on traction. Maybe better as an amphibious sub than a sea-bed crawler. This guy comes up with some really interesting compound transport concepts like submersible flying boats and flying cars etc, but none have any technical credibility.


This is an absolutely horrible idea, regardless of whether it will ever happen or not. I suspect designer Philip Pauley has not considered the environmental degredation the Pathfinder submarines would render as they trundled across the fragile ocean floor....and for what? to win a silly race? I suggest that we engineers and designers put our talents, experience and intelligence toward resolving the pressing problems in the world today so that our inventions and creations will help leave a clean, green world for our children and future generations. I suggest Mr. Pauley apply his design talents to the clean energy sector, which HSBC stated in a recent report, was the \"Biggest Economic Development Opportunity Ever Quantified\". That is where the SMART money is going, and that is what the SMART designers are concentrating on. The clean energy sector presently exceeds $500 BILLION a year and is already larger than the global aerospace and defense industries combined. In their report, HSBC predicted that the clean energy market will be worth $2 TRILLION in 10 years - and that\'s a lot of GREEN.


This is an old design. The 3 Stooges invented the SubHeliTank long ago and used it to fight Martians, not just race across the ocean. Also, their version could fly. The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) **kent

Kent Archie

@facebook user & @aMajorman I couldn\'t agree more. This idea is moronic let alone so easy to show how unworkable it is.

Gizmag should look at why it publishes things rather than just because they are there.

Another thing Gizmag should do is demand that the people who want their ideas shown answer questions in this forum, now that would be interesting.

A submarine with wheels is this guy older than eight?

Nick Rowney

@Michael Mantion The answer is because I was picturing a small, simple AUV of a few feet in diameter - something small and cheap (and safe) enough that colleges could build them and use them as part of a competition to cross the Atlantic. Gizmag covered a robotic sailboat attempting to cross the Atlantic as part of a competition here: Shockingly, it uses solar panels, not a freakin\' breeder reactor! :-) A competition like this for autonomous underwater vehicles would be awesome - less challenge from steering and the elements, more challenge from power and navigation.

Contrast this theoretical event with Mr. Pauley\'s idea of building what could be billion-dollar submarines, filling them with people, and having them roll (?!?) across the sea floor while a flotilla of support ships monitor/assist them from above, and see which seems more practical or likely - and which would contribute more to science in the process. Advances from such an AUV competition could be applied to autonomous floating environmental sensors, AUV/ROVs for inspecting oil platforms and ship hulls, sensors to detect hostile submarines, general advances in battery and solar technology, etc.


1) A lithium battery would be depleted within 10 minutes. It would require a nuclear power plant to move this thing across the ocean!

2) It destroys the ocean floor.

Other than that, it\'s cool.


Hmmm, decisions, decisions, breeder reactor or solar cells. Yes, solar cells have gotten better, improving all the time. I think I was reading last week that if you magnify the light going in you can reduce the number of cells required. Why not a water race to Hawaii? Especially if its a University thing. Much more fun to be had at the finish line. Especially if we\'re talking autonomous. Breeder reactor? Hmm, worthy of the engineering challenge. As for tearing up the ocean floor, this is a stupid idea!


Actually - there are a lot of places that these can be used.. like driving between islands, doing undersea research....

And for the un-nutters I have thought about driving undersea from Australia to Tasmania - where the average sea depth is 80 meters, and with an air tether to the surface, one could simply drive across the sea bottom......

It's very do-able.

Mr Stiffy
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