Gizmag checks out Survival Capsules' tsunami survival pods


May 22, 2014

Julian Sharpe, President of Survival Capsule LCC

Julian Sharpe, President of Survival Capsule LCC

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The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami that followed count as one of the worst disasters of the 21st century. When it struck off the southern coast of Japan with a force of magnitude 9, it was the most powerful ever to hit Japan, and the tsunami with a maximum height of 40.5 m (133 ft) resulted in 15,885 deaths, 6,148 injured, and 2,623 people missing. In anticipation of a similar disaster, Survival Capsules LCC of Mukilteo, Washington has developed a steel and aircraft-grade aluminum sphere designed to protect against both fire and flood. Gizmag paid a visit to the company to learn more about it.

According to Julian Sharpe, President of Survival Capsules LCC, the tsunami was a terrible learning experience for the Japanese. Tsunami protection had been the responsibility of the central government, but the one-size-fits-all procedures ended up costing thousands of lives. Many areas had safe havens and evacuation towers that turned out to be far too low to ride out the disaster, with people being washed off the roofs of businesses and schools, some three-stories high, where they’d taken refuge.

As a result of this, Japan is moving away from national disaster planning to local planning backed by federal funds. With the rewriting of laws and regulations, Survival Capsule has been involved in both helping to develop these reforms as well as creating a new system that Sharpe says greatly increases the chance of survivors being able to ride out the next tsunami.

Sharpe says he came up with the idea for the Survival Capsule while on holiday with his family in the coastal resort town of Cannon Beach, Oregon. With the memory of the Boxing Day tsunami that tore through the Indian Ocean and the East Indies in 2004 still fresh, he saw that the town stretched out along the rugged Pacific coastline was particularly vulnerable.

The steadily rising land at Cannon Beach meant that in the event of tsunami, the water would rise up the hills like water slopping in a bathtub, which made the local plan of running for a safe haven in the center of town highly impractical at best. This is equally true of many places of various topography along coasts all over the world. He hit upon the idea of something more flexible in the form of tethered capsules that could float about the incoming wave and ride out the disaster.

According to Sharpe, the patent-pending personal safety system (PSS) is designed to protect survivors not only in tsunamis, but also hurricanes, storm surges, earthquakes, and tornadoes. It was designed by aircraft engineers in consultation with tsunami experts, such as Dr Eddie Bernard of the University of Washington.

A sample lining of the Survival Capsule

There are currently five versions of the capsule ranging in size from a basic two-person model with a diameter of 4.5 ft (1.4 m) to ones capable of holding 10 adults that have a diameter of 8 ft (2.4 m). Intended for private homes, businesses, schools, airports, and as public shelters, the Survival Capsule differs from similar systems in that it consists of a welded tubular steel frame encased in a spun aluminum hull lined with a ceramic thermal insulation blanket that can be heated to about 2,000° F (1,100° C) and remain cool to the touch on the other side.

The brightly-painted spherical capsule is designed to withstand impacts, especially penetrating ones, and the shape allows it to roll out from beneath debris thanks to 4,000 lb (1,800 kg) of buoyancy. In addition, it can be fitted with one or two windows.

Access to the capsule is by a marine-grade hatch that can be opened from either side, with the outside fitted with a universal marine rescue socket. Inside, there are racing-style seats with full four-point harnesses, water bladders, a GPS locator beacon, storage facilities for food and other survival supplies, and 60 minutes of oxygen for when the naturally aspirated vents are under water. The hull also allows for mobile phone use to communicate with the outside world.

In addition, the capsule weighs only about 300 lb (136 kg), so it’s easy to move. It is also equipped with a hoist point, so it can be recovered by a crane or helicopter, while alow center of gravity ensures that it remains upright. Optional extras include a dry-powder toilet, a music system, and solar panels.

Instead of centralized towers and other evacuation centers, the capsules could be scattered along the coast, with each sitting on a ring base. As the water rises, the tether plays out like the mooring line on a buoy. When the water recedes, it floats back to the ground. If the water gets too deep, the line disengages and the capsule floats to the surface.

One peculiar thing about the Survival Capsule headquarters is that its singularly lacking in capsules. Except for a couple of prototypes, there aren’t any to be seen. Sharpe says that this is because the capsules are sold as kits rather than completed spheres. These are sent to Japan, where they’re assembled by preselected manufacturers as a way to keep the money local. This is also in anticipation of the spheres being built under license in Japan.

The current cost of the spheres is between US$13,00 and $20,000, depending on the place of manufacture and sale, though Sharpe says that his company is looking into cost savings by such means as automation and economies of scale.

The video below shows the development of the Survival Capsule.

More information on the spheres can be found at Survival Capsules.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

In response to Daishi: The capsule floats and the centre of gravity is situated to keep the unit upright while floating. Also, if you read the article you will learn about the fact that the capsules are designed to be tethered to mitigate the risk of being washed out to sea.


Great stuff!!!....just a suggestion though....if ye inside the Survival Capsule (SC) and it's hit by a tsunami, break free and/or or rolls, etc, do the people within the capsule also roll along????...if that is so there's gonna be alot of chunking going on inside!!!! my about encasing this SC in a sort of outer capsule such that it is linked to the the inner SC by way of say, ball bearings such that while the outside turns( as the outside is impacted by external force directions) the SC remains in an upright inner occupants sitting position???. This would help as i see the developers have the centre of gravity issue sorted out. Also, the movement of the outer Skin, so to speak, could be converted into electricity for the occupants such that the air within the capsule can be say, re-oxygenated so as to lengthen the survival period one can remain within the SC. Please keep me informed...could this unit also be used for areas where there is nuclear fall out??


One of the problems with tsunami isn't just the destructive force they crush buildings with but as they go back out to sea they pull a lot of the structures and objects with them. Dues this float? The Internet says a tsunami can last 2-3 hours and then you still have the problem of likely ending up in the ocean at the end of the ride.

I don't think its a bad idea but it would be a heck of a ride. Even if this thing finishes on the sea floor you could probably put something like an inflatable raft inside it you could use after opening the hatch (which is hopefully not facing directly down)

I wonder if there is benefit to making the hatch egg shaped to reduce the likelihood of finishing hatch down?


Daishi, you really need to go back and read the whole article again before posting and then you would know it floats and it also floats upright.


Its to small!

Jamie Lill

My concern is what happens when it gets trapped in debris, it would like being buried alive, only your just curled up in a ball, or being cooked in the ball in the hot sun, waiting for rescue. just have carrots and potatoes as rations in the ball, and you got people stew. I could think of better ways to go.

Jay Finke

The threat of tsunamis is a very real thing in and around the ring of fire, and the loss of life is great for there not to be a solution. In the US, outside the Pacific coastal regions, we have a greater threat from hurricanes and tornadoes; if these capsules can survive a tsunami it should be able to handle a EF 5 tornado or hurricane. Has there been any thought about selling these capsules to communities in the Hurricane Alley? if it could save lives there; it should be able to save live here.

Kristianna Thomas

Hmmm i am thinking spacecraft with some mods ; )

Leonard Foster

How about a radio transponder - so IF it IS washed out to sea rescuers can locate it? Looks a bit like the escape pods used by Donald Pleasance in 'Escape from NY' and James Bond's 'You Only Live Twice'.

Larry Pines

Considering that debris from the Fukishima earthquake was washing ashore on the US west coast as recently as this spring, tethered or not, I can't help envision these pods breaking free and taking the same length of time to cross the ocean with their hapless occupants.


Wow, judging by these comments people need to actually READ the article before posting.


Mass produce, ideal for beach areas, along rivers, lakes, & quake zones. Need plants in US, EU, Australia. Must be in Bright colors to ID from distance./ & place near harbors, marinas, seaports too worldwide.

Stephen Russell

@cadueces I watched the vid but didn't read the article. You are the 3rd person (after Tyro and Simon) to point it out though.

As for the tether, the article said if the water gets too deep it disconnects (to prevent from holding the capsule under water). I want to say whole villages were leveled and pulled out to sea. Even structurally sounds buildings are less so with other buildings and debris being smashed against them.

There was a sorta famous story of a Harley Davidson that was washed away and found in Canada. I think Harley offered to restore the bike for free but the article also said 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris washed up on Canada's west coast. The tsunami hit japan in March 2011 and the bike trailer was found 11 months later on a beach in Canada.

I'm not saying this is a bad idea, there are situations where it makes sense but the likelyhood of needing to get out at sea and find your way back to land are pretty good. Beacons aren't a terrible idea but some villages saw ~96% of their fishing boats destroyed, grid power was wiped out, ~250k people died in the 2004 tsunami etc. so it would also be reasonable to expect there may be nobody nearby with the means to come fish you out of the water.

The test would probably ruin one of the capsules but its probably worth testing getting out of one in water with with an inflatable raft and maybe some basic supplies.

As for where to place them, the first instinct people would have is to try to get to higher ground and this would be plan b. I think they may be more useful on rooftops of buildings near the beach than placed too close to the water like on the beach. I say this because in some of the footage I saw from Malaysia and Sri Lanka people (who didn't have early warning) generally reacted by running up the stairs of the closest building.


A worthy idea, but logistically very hard to succeed. Even at a single school or apartment complex, the numbers involved are terrible. Allowing for the bigger models, problems still show up - where would they all be tethered? In a courtyard or perhaps on the roof? Carpark? Unless very highly subsidised by Gov, very few coastal village people could afford it, and then the jealousy thing comes in - "How come you can afford one? Where are ours?" I can imagine a (slightly smug) mayor climbing out, only to be lynched by a few angry survivors.

The Skud

"and 60 minutes of oxygen for when the naturally aspirated vents are under water. "

So what happens if you are in a fire. Do you have the option to manually close the ports and not suffocate from the smoke?

The article does not mention how much weight can be placed on these pods if say a building collapses on them.

I also like ASHDIL's idea about a rolling outer shell. Though you would need solve the issue of the exit port having to align with the inner chamber, otherwise you can't escape.

Re: Jay Finke Yeah, the thought of cooking alive also occurred to me too. Needs better cooling.



Yeah, the thought of cooking alive also occurred to me too. Needs better cooling.

They ship with a powerful state of the art external cooling solution free of charge. It is a water cooled system called tsunami :) To save energy the cooling system only runs when capsule operation is needed.


given the risks involved even using one of these pods, I think I'd prefer to chance it and simply head for the tallest structurally strong building and get on the roof. The odds are probably the same, but I couldn't bring myself to climb into a dark tiny metal ball if there are other options.


I'll take a real boat or a well sealed concrete bunker.


I think that is a great idea. It seems awfully cramped. If it was like the one in the James Bond movie 'You Only Live Twice', it would be really comfortable and have a beacon so they can find you easier.


The more I think about this the more I think it's a joke, if anything, you don't want to ride out a tsunami, you want to watch it from above, So may I suggest a personal balloon ? That's were I would want to be, watching everybody else take the ride, as I watch from above.

Jay Finke

For 20 grand, I'd at least like to see a second door situated at an angle away from the first to maximize escape options when pod is trapped in debris.

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