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Capturing 3D Audio Underwater

Listen up divers! Audio engineer turned techie, Symeon Manias is bringing 3D audio to the underwater world to provide a more immersive and convincing auditory experience to listeners whether its video, film, or virtual reality. So, pump up the volume—here’s what you need to know.

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by Symeon Manias
Header image by Peter Gaertner/Symeon Manias and edited by Amanda White

Spatial hearing provides sound related information about the world. Where does a sound come from? How far away is it? In what space does the sound reside? Humans are pretty good at localizing sound sources and making sense of the world of sounds. The human auditory system performs localization tasks either by solely relying on auditory cues or by fusing them with visual, dynamic, or experience-based cues. Auditory cues consist of cues obtained by one ear, which is termed monaural, or by using both ears, termed binaural. 

Humans can detect sounds of frequency content between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. That translates to wavelengths between 1.7 cm and 17 m. This frequency range decreases with age as the internal parts of the ear degrade; however, exposure to loud noises can accelerate this degradation. The peripheral part of each of the human ears, which by no coincidence is common to most mammals, consists of three structures. The external part of the ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Figure 1 shows in detail all these parts of the ear along with their basic structure

Figure 1.
Courtesy of Evangelos Pantazis.

The external ear consists mainly of the pinna, the concha, and the ear canal and ends at the eardrum. The pinna and concha, which are visible as the outer part of the ear, are responsible for modifying the frequency spectrum of sounds coming from different directions. The ear canal, on the other hand, is responsible for enhancing specific frequencies of most incoming sounds. The ear canal can be seen as a resonant tube with a resonant frequency that depends on the length and diameter of the tube. For most humans, the resonant frequency of the ear canal is between 2 kHz and 4 kHz. This means that all sounds that travel through the ear canal will be enhanced in that frequency range. Airborne sounds travel from the world through the pinna, the concha, the ear canal, and hit the eardrum, which is at the end of the ear canal. The eardrum separates the outer from the middle ear and acts as a transformer that converts sounds to mechanical vibration. 

On the other side of the eardrum, in the middle ear, there are three ossicles, the malleus, the incus and the stapes. These bones are responsible for transmitting the sounds from the outer ear through vibration to the entrance of the inner ear at the oval window. This is where mechanical vibration is transformed into sound to then be received by the sound receptors in the middle ear. 

One might wonder why we even need the middle ear if the incoming sound is first transformed at the eardrum into mechanical vibration and then back to sound at the oval window. If the middle ear was absent, it is very likely that incoming sound would be reflected back at the eardrum. Another reason is that the middle ear generally acts as a dynamics processor; it has a protection functionality. When a loud sound travels through the ear canal and hits the eardrum, the muscles that are attached to the middle ear ossicles can attenuate the mechanical vibration. This is a phenomenon known in psychoacoustics as an acoustics reflex. The middle ear also serves as a means to reduce the transmission of internally generated sounds that are transmitted through bone conduction, as well as letting air be transmitted on the back side of the eardrum through the Eustachian tube, which balances the pressure that is building on the eardrum.

The inner ear is a very complex structure which is responsible for two functions: one is the vestibular system, which is responsible for our orientation and balance in the three-dimensional world, and the other is the cochlea, which is dedicated to sound perception. The cochlea, which looks like a hard shell, is essentially a hard bone filled with fluid and consisting of rigid walls which continue like a spiral with decreasing diameter. Sounds enter the cochlea through the oval window and cause the liquid inside the cochlea to begin to ripple, and that’s where the magic happens. 

There are two membranes inside the cochlea, the vestibular membrane, which separates the cochlear duct from the vestibular duct, and the basilar membrane. The basilar membrane is where the organ of Corti resides; this area consists of two sets of sensory receptors, named hair cells, and these are the inner and outer cells. The inner hair cells, which move as the incoming sound waves travel through the cochlear fluid, act as transducers that transform the motion into neural spike activity that is then sent to the auditory nerve. 

The outer hair cells can influence the overall sensitivity of each perceived sound. The neural spikes that travel through the auditory nerve are then received by the brain and are interpreted as sounds that we know and can understand. Different sections of the basilar membrane inside the cochlea are responsible for interpreting different frequencies of sound. The section near the entrance consists of hair cells that are responsible for the interpretation of high pitched sounds and, as we move further inside the cochlea, detect progressively lower pitched sounds.

Sound Source Localization

A single ear is basically a frequency analyzer that can provide information to the brain about the pitch of a sound with some dynamics processing that can protect us from loud sounds and some basic filtering of a sound that comes from different directions. So what can we do with two ears that it is almost impossible to do with one? Two ears can provide information about another dimension—the direction—and consequently can give us an estimate of the location of a sound. This is termed spatial hearing. The main theories about how spatial hearing works developed around the idea of how we localize sounds with two ears and get information about the environment in which they reside.

The human auditory system deploys an assortment of localization cues to determine the location of a sound event. The underlying human localization theory is that the main auditory cues that assist with localization are the time and level difference between the two ears and the shape of the ear itself. The most prominent auditory cues use both ears for determining the direction of a sound source and are called binaural cues. These cues measure the time difference of a sound arriving in the two ears, named as interaural time difference (ITD), and cues that track the level difference between the two ears, named as interaural intensity difference (IID). Sound arrives at different times between the two ears and the time delay can be up to approximately 0.7 milliseconds (ms). ITD is meaningful for frequencies up to approximately 1.5 kHz, while ILD provides meaning for frequencies above 1.5 kHz. See Figure 2 for a visual explanation of the ITD and ILD.

Figure 2.

ITD and IID alone cannot adequately describe the sound localization process. Imagine a sound coming from directly in front vs the same sound coming directly from the back. ITD and IID provide the exact same values for both ears since their distance from the sound is exactly the same. This is true for all sounds that are on the median plane, which is the plane defined from the points directly in front of us, then up and then back. This is where monaural cues play a role. These are generated by the pinna, diffraction, and reflections of our torso and head. The frequencies of sounds coming from our back or on top of our head will be attenuated differently than sounds coming from front. Another set of cues are dynamic cues which are generated by moving our head. These can show the effect of our head movement to ITD and IID. Last but not least, visual and experience-based cues play an important role as well. Our visual cues, when available,  fuse information with auditory cues and resolve to more accurate source localization.

Localizing Sound Underwater

If, under certain conditions, humans can localize a sound source with accuracy as high as 1 degree in the horizontal plane, what makes it so difficult to understand where sounds are coming from when we are underwater? The story of sound perception becomes very different underwater. When we are submerged the localization abilities of the auditory systems degrade significantly. The factor that has the biggest impact when we enter the water is the speed of sound. The speed of sound in air is approximately 343 m/s, while underwater it is 1480 m/s and depends mainly on temperature, salinity etc. A speed of sound that is more than 4x higher than the speed of sound in air will result in sound arriving in our ear with much smaller time differences, which could possibly diminish or even eliminate completely our spatial hearing abilities. 

The perception of time differences is not the only cue that is affected; the perception of interaural intensity differences is also affected by the fact that there is very little mechanical impedance mismatch between water and our head. In air, our head acts as an acoustic barrier that attenuates high frequencies due to shadowing effect. Underwater sound most likely travels directly through our head since the impedances of water and our head are very similar. and the head is acoustically transparent. These factors might suggest that underwater, humans could be considered as a one-eared mammal. 

In principle, the auditory system performs very poorly underwater. On the other hand, there have been studies and early reports by divers that suggest that some primitive type of localization can be achieved underwater. In a very limited study that aimed to determine the minimum audible angle, divers were instructed to perform a left-right discrimination and were able to improve their ability when they were given feedback on their performance. 

Another study was conducted where various underwater projectors were placed at 0, +/-45 and +/-90 degrees at ear level in the horizontal plane with 0 degrees being in front of the diver in [5]. The stimuli consisted of pure tones and noise. The results indicated that divers could perform enough localization that it could not be written off as coincidence or chance. It is not entirely clear whether the underwater localization ability is something that humans can learn and adapt or if it’s a limitation of the human auditory system itself.

Assistive Technologies for Sound Recording

In a perfect world, humans could perform localization tasks underwater as accurately as they could in air. Until that day, should it ever come, we can use assistive technologies to sense the underwater sound environment. Assistive technologies can be exploited for two main applications of 3D audio underwater: localization of sound and sound recording. Sound sensing with microphones is a well developed topic, especially nowadays since the cost of building devices with multiple microphones has decreased dramatically. Multi-microphone devices can be found everywhere in our daily life from portable devices to cars. These devices use multiple microphones to make sense of the world and deliver to the user improved sensing abilities but also the ability to capture the sounds with great accuracy. 

The aim of 3D audio is to provide an immersive, appealing, and convincing auditory experience to a listener. This can be achieved by delivering the appropriate spatial cues using a reproduction system that consists of either headphones or loudspeakers. There are quite a few techniques regarding 3D audio localization and 3D audio recording that one can exploit for an immersive experience. Traditionally, recording relies on a small number of sensors that are either played back directly to the loudspeaker or are mixed linearly and then fed to loudspeakers. The main idea here is that if we can approximate the binaural cues, we can trick the human auditory system into thinking that sounds come from specific directions and give the impression of being there. 

One of the earliest approaches in the microphone domain was a stereophonic technique invented by Blumlein in Bell Labs [6]. Although this technique was invented in the beginning of the last century, it took many decades to actually commercialize it. From there on, many different stereophonic techniques were utilized that aimed at approximating the desired time and level differences to be delivered to the listener. This was performed by changing the distance between the sensors or by placing directional sensors really close together, and delivering the directional cues by exploiting the directivity of the sensors. The transition from stereophonic to surround systems came right after by using multiple sensors for capturing sounds and multiple loudspeakers for playback. These are, for example, the traditional microphone arrangements we can see on top of an orchestra playing in a hall.

A more advanced technology that existed since the 1970s is called Ambisonics. It consists of a unified generalized approach to the recording, analysis, and reproduction of any recorded sound field. It utilized a standard microphone recording setup with four sensors placed almost in a coincident manner on the tetrahedral arrangement. This method provided great flexibility in terms of playback: once the audio signals are recorded they can be played back in any type of output setup, such as a stereophonic pair of loudspeakers, a surround setup, or plain headphones. The mathematical background of this technique is based on solving the acoustic wave equation, and for a non-expert this can become an inconvenience to use in practice. 

Fortunately, there are tools that make this process straightforward for the non-expert. In practical terms, this technology is based on recording signals from various sensors and then combining them to obtain a new set of audio signals, called ambisonic signals. The requirement for acquiring optimal ambisonic signals is to record the signals with sensors placed on the surface of a sphere for practical and theoretical convenience. The process is based on sampling the sound field pressure over a surface or volume around the origin. The accuracy of the sampling depends on the array geometry, the number of sensors, and the distance between the sensors. The encoded ambisonic signals can then accurately describe the sound field. 

By using ambisonic signals, one can approximate the pressure and particle velocity of the sound field at the point where the sensors are located. By estimating these two quantities we can then perform an energetic analysis of the sound field and estimate the direction of a sound by using the active intensity vector. The active intensity vector points to the direction of the energy flow in a sound field. The opposite of that direction will point exactly where the energy is coming from, therefore it will show the direction of arrival. A generic view of such a system is shown in Figure 3. For more technical details on how an three-dimensional sound processor works the reader is referred to [3,7].

Figure 3

For underwater audio-related applications, a similar sensor is used, namely the hydrophone. The signal processing principles that can be used underwater are very similar to the ones used with microphones. However, the applications are not as widely spread. Multiple hydrophones, namely hydrophone arrays, have been utilized for localization tasks, but many of them are based on classical theories that require the hydrophones to be very far apart from each other. Therefore, compact, wearable devices are uncommon. A compact hydrophone array that can be carried by a single diver can serve multiple purposes: it can operate as a localization device that can locate quite accurately where sounds are originating from, and it can also capture the sounds with spatial accuracy that can later be played back and give the experience of being there. This can be especially useful for people that do not have the chance to experience the underwater world at all or listen to the sounds of highly inaccessible places where diving is only for highly-skilled technical divers.

A purposefully built compact hydrophone array which can be operated by a diver and that can perform simultaneously a localization task but also record spatial audio that can be later played through a pair of headphones, is shown in a recently published article as a proof of concept. It is suggested that a simple set of four hydrophone sensors can be exploited in real-time to identify the direction of underwater sound objects with relatively high accuracy, both visually and aurally. 

Figure 4.

Underwater sound localization is not a new technology, but the ability to do such tasks with compact hydrophone arrays where the hydrophones are closely spaced together has the potential for many applications. The hydrophone array used in the study discussed above, was an open-body hydrophone array, consisting of four sensors placed at the vertices of a tetrahedral frame. A photo of the hydrophone array is shown in Figure 4. More technical details on the hydrophone array can be found in the following publication [2]. The hydrophone array was used to provide a visualization of the sound field. The sound-field visualization is basically a sound activity map where the relative energy for many directions is depicted using a color gradient like in Figure 5. These experiments were performed in a diving pool. 

The depth of the hydrophone array was fixed by attaching it to the end of a metal rod, which was made out of a three-piece aluminum tube. The hydrophone array signals were recorded and processed in real time with a set of virtual instrument plugins. The observer, a single action camera in this case,  was able to clearly track the movements of the diver from the perspective of the array, both visually and aurally. The diver from the perspective of the array and the corresponding activity map are both shown in Figure 5. A video demonstrating the tracking and headphone rendering with a diver inside the swimming pool can be found here.

Figure 5.

This example has been utilized as a proof of concept that compact arrays can be indeed exploited by divers simultaneously for sound visualization and accurate three-dimensional sound recording. In the examples shown, the sound arrives at the hydrophone array and then the user can visually see the location of sound and simultaneously listen to the acoustic field. The three-dimensional audio cues are delivered accurately and the sound sources are represented to the user in their correct spatial location so the user can accurately localize them. 

3D Video Recording

The current state of the art in 3D video recording underwater usually captures the audio with the microphones built into the cameras. Although sounds are often recorded in this way, the recorded sound through built-in microphones inside a casing cannot capture underwater sounds accurately. The development of a relatively compact hydrophone array such as the one demonstrated could potentially enhance the audio-visual experience by providing accurate audio rendering of the recorded sound scene. Visuals and specific 3D video recordings can be pretty impressive by themselves, but the addition of an accompanying 3D audio component can potentially enhance the experience. 

Visuals and specific 3D video recordings can be pretty impressive by themselves, but the addition of an accompanying 3D audio component can potentially enhance the experience.

Ambisonic technologies are a great candidate for such an application since the underwater sound field can be easily recorded with an ambisonic hydrophone array (such as the one shown in Figure 4) and can be mounted near or within the 3D camera system. Ambisonics aim at a complete reconstruction of the physical sound scene. Once the sound scene is recorded and transformed in the ambisonic format, a series of additional spatial transformations/manipulation can come handy. Ambisonics allow straightforward manipulation of the recorded sound scene, such as a rotation of the whole sound field to arbitrary directions, mirroring of the sound field to any axis, direction-dependent manipulation such as focusing on different directions or areas, or even warping of the whole sound field. The quality of the reproduced sound scene and accuracy of all the sound scene manipulation techniques highly depends on the number of sensors involved in the recording.

Some modern, state-of-the art techniques are based on the same recording principle, but they can provide an enhanced audio experience by using a low number of sensors that exploit human hearing abilities as well as advanced statistical signal processing techniques. These techniques aim to imitate the way human hearing works, and by processing the sounds in time, frequency, and space, they deliver the necessary spatial cues for an engaging aural experience, which is usually perceived as very close to reality. They exploit the limitations of the human auditory system and analyze only the properties of the sound scene that are meaningful to a human listener. Once the sound scene is recorded and analyzed into the frequency content of different sounds, it can then be manipulated and synthesized for playback [7].

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Dr. Symeon Manias has worked in the field of spatial audio since 2008. He has received awards from the Audio Engineering Society, the Nokia Foundation, the Foundation of Aalto Science and Technology, and the International College of the European University of Brittany. He is an editor and author of the first parametric spatial audio book from Wiley and IEEE Press. Manias can be usually found diving through the kelp forests of Southern California.
Contact: symewn@gmail.com

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Equipment

Decompression Habitats Are Ascendent

Armed with reliable rebreathers, expedition-grade scooters, electric heating, helium mixes, high-powered dive computers, and those all-important P-valves, today’s cave explorers are giving our collective underwater envelope a hard shove (deeper and longer), all the while enduring increasing hours of long, cold, boring decompression. That’s the reason that the use of deco habitats—first pioneered by Dr. Bill Stone in the late 1980s—is on the rise. Here anesthesiologist-cum-cave explorer Andy Pitkin explains everything you need to know about modern deco habitats from their history, construction, and positioning to ensuring adequate, safe breathing gas flow.

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By Andy Pitkin

Cold. Hungry. Uncomfortable. Bored. These adjectives can aptly be applied to the vast majority of divers during the decompression portion of advanced technical dives. The commercial diving industry, less concerned about divers’ comfort and more interested in safety and efficiency, has long incorporated decompression in a dry chamber for anything other than shallow diving operations. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Bill Stone’s 1999 Wakulla 2 project, surface decompression in a pressurized chamber has been impossible for technical divers. The next best thing is a habitat.

The ‘habitrough’ used by Sheck Exley at Cathedral Canyon during his exploration there in the 1980s. Photo by ?

Habitats are gas-filled spaces underwater that allow a diver to remain at pressure while getting part or all of their body out of the water. The name comes from experimental living quarters such as the Sealab series where divers would remain underwater for a number of days for (usually) scientific purposes. The habitats used for decompression by technical divers are much more modest, and this article will discuss the theoretical and practical considerations of decompression habitats, some of which are obvious, and some have had to be learned through real-world experience. 

Paul Deloach (left) and Sheck Exley (right) decompressing in the habitat designed by Bill Stone and funded by Rolex for the Wakulla Spring 1987 exploration project by the US Deep Caving Team. The 40m (120 ft) chain hoist allowed the divers to adjust the depth of the habitat as their decompression progressed. Photo taken by Wes Skiles and courtesy of Bill Stone/US Deep Caving Team, Inc.

Advantages Of Habitats

The benefits of a decompression habitat are so self-evident that they hardly need to be mentioned. The most obvious is warmth, because of the much lower loss of body heat in a gaseous environment compared with immersion in water. Even if only the diver’s head is out of the water there is a significant improvement in both subjective and objective thermal homeostasis. Being out of the water reduces both the risk of oxygen toxicity and the severity of the consequences of a seizure, which is likely to be fatal underwater but could probably be survived in a habitat.

Eating and drinking is much easier, and the ability to talk, listen to music, watch movies and pass the time in relative warmth and comfort makes a long decompression of many hours much easier to tolerate, as well as being considerably safer. A habitat also can be used as a makeshift on-site recompression chamber, which could at least allow a diver’s symptoms to be stabilized while arrangements are made to support the necessarily lengthy in-water decompression phase.

Andrew Pitkin illuminates the 15 m/50 ft habitat at Lineater Spring. This habitat is 700 m/2300 ft underwater from the cave entrance. The aluminum “floor” greatly assists entry and egress from the habitat. Photo by Kyle Moschell / Karst Underwater Research.

Securing the Habitat

Decompression habitats have occasionally been installed in open water; examples include Martin Robson’s exploration of the Blue Lake in the Russian Caucasus mountains in 2012 [1] and Michael Lombardi’s Ocean Space Habitat, also in 2012 [2]. The overwhelming majority have been used in cave diving, because underwater cave exploration often mandates lengthy decompression and the environment usually guarantees that decompression will occur in a specific location. The wide variety of underwater caves has resulted in many different approaches to construction, from sealing a natural airspace formed by a dome in the ceiling using a tarpaulin (“habitarp”), upturned rubbish bins (“habibin”) to large custom-designed and manufactured enclosures. A volume of gas large enough to be useful has considerable buoyancy, which must be restrained either from above by the cave ceiling or from below using the floor or wall of the cave passage. A 1000 liter (264 gallon) IBC container often used for this purpose has a buoyancy of 1000 kg (2204 lbs), and many habitats are larger. 

Unless it is constrained by the cave ceiling, the anchoring system must be very strong and reliable. Natural anchors such as rock projections and large boulders are better for conservation, but they may not be available in the required location, necessitating placement of artificial anchors in the cave wall or floor. These are very similar to anchors used in vertical dry caving, and can be screw anchors, expansion bolts or even glue-in types, typically made of stainless steel (or titanium, if money is no object!).

Air-powered drills are much less expensive than battery-powered underwater drills but can use a large amount of compressed air. When our group (Karst Underwater Research or KUR) placed a habitat 2 km/6562 ft from the entrance of a cave in 2013 (when no suitable battery-powered underwater drill was available), the large volume of bubbles released from the air drill we used to make the holes for the anchors percolated so much silt from the walls and ceiling that the water visibility was reduced to almost zero for about a third of the exit distance. Whatever method of fixing the habitat is chosen, it needs to be very secure, as the consequences of an anchor coming loose could be extremely severe.

The 16 m/52 ft habitat in the Pearse Resurgence. Photo by Simon Mitchell.

The depth of the habitat may be a compromise between what is ideal for decompression and what is dictated by the location. Since the final decompression stop is the longest, the habitat is often targeted as close to 6 m/20 ft deep as possible. Some advanced projects, most notably the Wet Mules’ exploration of the Pearse Resurgence in New Zealand, have used multiple habitats at various depths because of the extreme maximum depth of more than 240 m/787 ft and cold water 6°C/43°F. 

To maximize the air space, the habitat container needs to be as level as possible. In other words, the water level can be no lower than the highest point of any of the sides where gas can escape, and this consideration may be more important than installing it at the ideal depth. When a habitat is anchored from below, it is usually easiest to start a little deeper than the intended depth and then adjust to the correct depth before the container is completely filled with gas.

Our group typically uses polyester static caving rope (nylon lengthens about 5-10% on getting wet) with equalized double anchors at the bottom (double figure 8 or bowline on a bight) and ‘super Münter’ adjustable hitches at the top for easy adjustment of length. When the anchor points have been close to the bottom of the habitat, we have had a lot of success with appropriately-rated webbing ratchet straps.

The 30 m/100 ft and 40 m/130 ft habitats in the main shaft of the Pearse Resurgence during the Wet Mules’ exploration in 2021. The cable carried power for drysuit heating and a simple buzzer communication system. Photo by Simon Mitchell.

The Use of Containers

Many factors will influence the choice of a container for a habitat, but they can be reduced to two primary ones: location and cost. Inflatable habitats—for example modified commercial lift bags—have the advantage that they can be rolled or folded up to fit through narrow parts of the cave. We have found that a large golf club case works as a streamlined container for an inflatable habitat that can be swum or towed by a DPV.

A rigid habitat, typically an industrial or occasionally purpose-built container, is much more cumbersome to move into a cave, and these are typically installed close to the cave entrance, which obviously has to be large enough for it to fit through. Experience has shown that any modifications to the container (e.g. rings or hooks for hanging equipment) are vastly easier to perform out of the water before the habitat is installed, especially if any kind of adhesive is required. A reliable valve near or at the highest point in the habitat is very helpful for removing gas when the habitat needs to be adjusted or removed but, with a little practice, gas can be siphoned out by two divers and a short length of garden hose. 

Unless the cave floor is close to the bottom of the habitat, the occupants will need either a floor or seats to keep them out of the water. The size and positioning of seats is a compromise between comfort and ease of entry into the habitat. 

Breathing Gas

The easiest and most inefficient option is for divers to use a conventional open-circuit, second stage regulator, with the cylinder being hung in the water below the habitat. Using a conventional diving rebreather may be difficult because of space limitations, prompting some home-made designs which are usually of the chest-mounted (or ‘laptop’) configuration. They can also be suspended at any convenient place in the airspace, because there is no hydrostatic counterlung loading.

The most efficient and comfortable option is for divers to breathe the habitat atmosphere itself, which immediately presents three new considerations: oxygen addition, carbon dioxide (CO2) removal, and gas monitoring. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Adding Oxygen

The above-mentioned 1000 liter IBC container, large enough for two divers, positioned at 6 msw/20 fsw, and filled with the surface equivalent of 1280 liters of oxygen and 320 liters of nitrogen, would entail an oxygen fraction of 0.8 and a partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) of 1.28 ata. We can conservatively assume that a decompressing diver will have an average oxygen consumption of about 1 liter/minute, and therefore two decompressing divers would consume about 120 liters of oxygen per hour. After one hour, the oxygen fraction within the habitat would have dropped to 0.78 and the PO2 to 1.25 ata, assuming the resulting CO2 does not remain in the airspace. This simple calculation, which is supported by practical experience, shows that elaborate arrangements for maintaining habitat PO2 are unnecessary and can be accomplished by simply purging an oxygen second stage intermittently within the habitat (e.g. every 30 minutes or more).

Removing CO2

There are only two ways of removing CO2 from an enclosed airspace: replacement by adding gas free of CO2, and chemically removing the CO2 from the atmosphere using a CO2 absorbent (scrubber). The first method is often used in hyperbaric chambers—which share many of the practical problems of underwater habitats—because it is safe and simple. Unfortunately for technical divers, it is too inefficient to be practical in most circumstances. Going back to our example above, our two divers will have exhaled about 96 liters of carbon dioxide in the first hour, assuming a typical respiratory quotient of 0.8, resulting in an ambient CO2 concentration of 6.5% (surface equivalent by volume). By this point, both divers would  likely be feeling significant adverse effects. 

If we assume that the CO2 in the habitat atmosphere should be maintained below the 0.5% surface equivalent value commonly used for rebreather scrubber testing, flushing of the habitat would have to be started after less than 5 minutes. The rate of continuous flushing to keep the CO2 in an enclosed pressurized airspace at a constant level is given by the following equation [3,4]:

where Qgas is the rate of gas ventilation, Pamb is the ambient pressure, VO2 is the total oxygen consumption of the divers, R is the respiratory quotient, F is a mixing factor (1 = ideal mixing) and PCO2 is the desired ambient partial pressure of carbon dioxide. 

For our two divers, the habitat would have to be flushed at a rate of 512 liters per minute or 19.5 cu ft per minute (surface equivalent) to maintain the CO2 at a surface equivalent of 0.5%. Note that the amount of gas required is independent of the volume of the habitat. This is logistically unsustainable in most situations: a typical 80 cu ft (11 liter) aluminum cylinder would last less than 3 minutes. This shows how difficult it is to maintain low CO2 levels with flushing of the gas space. Even if the CO2 is allowed to rise to a surface equivalent of 2%, which would cause some breathlessness but might be tolerable, the same cylinder would still only last about 16 minutes.

For the Wakulla project in 1987, Bill Stone calculated a 32 cu.ft./min (906 liters/min) gas flow requirement for an exploration team in that habitat positioned at 60 ft/20 m depth [5]. Two industrial Ingersoll-Rand surface compressors were easily able to meet this demand via a 400 foot long, ¾ inch internal diameter hose with manual shutoff valves and check valves fitted at both ends to prevent inadvertent venting of the habitat atmosphere when the compressors were not running. No direct measurement of habitat CO2 levels were made; the divers were able to purge the gas in the habitat whenever it seemed excessively ‘stuffy’.

The only other way to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere is to remove it chemically, turning the habitat into a giant shared rebreather. This is relatively a simple engineering task, using a sealed 12V motorcycle radiator fan to blow habitat gas through a scrubber bed, ideally with some form of speed control to allow the flow rate through the absorbent to be controlled by the diver(s). It can be powered from portable battery packs (such as those used for dive lights or undersuit heating) or a cable from the surface. Such a device needs to be transported to the habitat inside an appropriate container or designed into a pressure-proof housing (see picture).

A habitat scrubber built into a pressure-proof housing, with a venting valve on the left end cap. The white cylinder in the center is the axial scrubber basket, the space on the right is occupied by the fan, and the space to the left contains oxygen sensors and monitoring. The whole unit is neutrally-buoyant and measures 14 in/36 cm long with a diameter of 6 in/15 cm. Photo: Andrew Pitkin

Monitoring Your Gas

When KUR started building habitat scrubbers about 10 years ago, we used a prototype CO2 monitor for a rebreather to help decide how fast to run the scrubber motor. The monitor, which used infrared absorption spectrometry to measure CO2, was power-hungry and would exhaust all of its battery capacity in a few hours if left on continuously, so we would only switch it on intermittently. To pass the time while it was warming up, we would attempt to guess what the reading would be, and after a few iterations we became surprisingly good at estimating the CO2 level subjectively by how ‘stuffy’ the habitat atmosphere felt. Switching on a habitat scrubber fan feels pleasantly like someone opening a window, but the insidious accumulation of CO2 when the scrubber is off is much harder to notice. As an aside, I believe there is some potential for research into whether divers can be trained to recognize increasing levels of inhaled carbon dioxide from scrubber breakthrough. Handheld CO2 meters are available, and we are currently evaluating some of these for use in our habitats. Many are not suitable for the environment or will not give accurate readings in the presence of 100% humidity.

Oxygen measurement is simple, as in any rebreather, and can easily be combined with the scrubber assembly so that the sensors sample the gas being circulated by the fan. 

Ensuring Diver Safety

The limited space in most habitats often precludes the use of the divers’ main scuba system, in which case this must be removed when entering the habitat. When leaving for the surface (or a shallower habitat) this must either be redonned or a separate (often simple open-circuit) scuba used. These transitions present some hazards, especially if there is no solid floor beneath the air space with the potential for critical items to be dropped out of reach. A support diver is very valuable to assist a mission diver with entering and exiting the habitat and retrieving any items that are inadvertently released.

Explorer Matt Vinzant decompresses inside the 15m/50 ft habitat at Lineater Spring wearing his dual rebreather rig. This habitat is custom-built to allow two divers with redundant rebreathers to sit reasonably comfortably inside. Photo: Andrew Pitkin

As mentioned above, the positive buoyancy of a habitat can easily exceed 1000 kg (10kN) so all anchors, ropes, and connectors such as carabiners and maillon rapides should be appropriately rated for the application. The consequences of a habitat breaking loose in an uncontrolled ascent could be very severe and even fatal.

One concern, especially if the habitat atmosphere has a significantly elevated PO2, is fire safety. With the bottom of the container open to the water, its atmosphere necessarily has 100% humidity, which has been shown experimentally to dramatically inhibit flame spread due to the latent heat of evaporation of water. While practical experience has been reassuring so far, the relative balance of fire-promoting conditions and humidity within a habitat has not yet been scientifically studied, so I would advise great caution with any potential ignition source, especially electrical switches, brushed motors (potential arcing), and dive lights (overheating).

Communications

The Wakulla 1987 project, pioneering in so many ways, introduced the use of habitat to surface communications with two phone lines, one of which was able to be used for long-distance calls, although the pushbutton phone used for the latter became unreliable after a time because of moisture ingress affecting the pushbuttons. Our group, like some others, has adopted single-wire earth-return telephones (also known as Michiephones) for communication with the surface. These are simple, robust, and require only a single wire to be installed to the habitat, although we sometimes use two-conductor military field phone wire with the conductors paralleled for redundancy. You can see them being used in this Alachua “habichat” video.

We have also used the combination of an LTE modem, power-over-ethernet switch, rugged ethernet cable, and a wi-fi access point in a pressure-proof housing to provide internet access within a habitat close to the entrance. While attractive, this option is not suitable for long-term installation and the effort of setting it up for each dive makes our dive teams generally prefer the single wire phone option. Other systems, such as two-wire intercoms for offices or door entry have also been used successfully. All these devices need to be able to function at elevated atmospheric pressure with 100% humidity.

Neville Michie (pronounced ‘Mickey’), an Australian caver, designed a simple and reliable earth-return telephone in the 1970s, although the concept is much older, dating back to the 19th century. Many similar units have been constructed for use around the world by cave rescue teams. Picture: Andrew Pitkin

Is There A Deco Habitat in Your Future?

We have already seen one version of the future: the Wakulla 2 project’s surface decompression chamber system with a transfer capsule (“bell”) to transport the divers under pressure from the water into a dry decompression chamber on the surface. Unfortunately very few sites have the geography, and even fewer divers the financial means, to support it. 

The ultimate habitat? An exploration diver entering the personnel transfer capsule (PTC) during the Wakulla 2 project in 1999. Because of the topography of the cavern, an angled Tyrolean of ¾” (19mm) rope was rigged along its roof to allow the PTC to reach the divers at 30 m/100 ft depth and get them out of the water several hours earlier than if the PTC was lowered vertically. Photo taken by Wes Skiles and courtesy of Bill Stone/US Deep Caving Team, Inc.

Some explorers have started experimenting with small one-person collapsible habitats which with advances in materials technology can be made more compact and lighter. I foresee more use of purpose-designed enclosures, especially collapsible ones that can be deployed in multiple locations. Underwater rotary hammers are now available which, although expensive, allow rapid placement of anchors in hard limestone. I also anticipate more habitats deployed in open water, like Michael Lombardi’s system-see below.

For deep cave exploration, habitats offer safety, some very welcome mouthpiece-free time, a chance to eat and drink, and even entertainment. More importantly, they allow the diver to warm up and stay warm at a critical phase of the dive, promoting (presumably) better perfusion and faster off-gassing. For these extreme dives, habitats truly change the game.

See Companion article: Portable Habitats—New Technical Diving Capabilities are Well Within Reach  by Michael Lombardi

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References

[1] Blue Lake: the habitat. 

[2] Lombardi M. Portable Habitats: New Technical Diving Capabilities are Well Within Reach. InDEPTH V 4.11

[3] Nuckols ML, Tucher WC, Sarich AJ. Life Support Systems Design: Diving and Hyperbaric Applications. Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston, USA, 1996.

[4] Gerth WA. Chamber Carbon Dioxide and Ventilation. NEDU TR 04-46. Navy Experimental Diving Unit, Panama City, FL, USA, 2004.

[5] Stone WC. The Wakulla Springs Project. U.S. Deep Caving Team. January 1st, 1989. ISBN-10: 0962178500. ISBN-13: 978-0962178504.


Andrew Pitkin learned to dive in 1992 in the cold murky waters of the United Kingdom and started cave and technical diving in 1994. His first exposure to exploration was in 1995 when he was one of a team of divers who were the first to reach the bottom of the Great Blue Hole of Belize at 408 fsw (123 msw). Subsequently he has been involved in numerous cave exploration projects in Belize, Mexico and Florida.

From 1996-2000 he was employed at the Royal Navy’s Institute of Naval Medicine, running a hyperbaric facility, treating decompression illness, participating in research into outcome after decompression illness, submarine escape and testing of new military underwater breathing systems. He is one of a handful of civilians to be trained by the Royal Navy as a diving medical officer.  

He moved to Florida in 2007 and is currently on the faculty of the College of Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. With Karst Underwater Research he has participated in numerous underwater cave exploration and filming projects. Like many explorers, he spends much of his spare time developing and building innovative equipment for exploration purposes.

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