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.