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Sixth in series of reports on Rebreather Forum 3 by Michael Menduno.

The diving media and interested Rebreather Forum participants were treated to a preview of the lovechild spawned by Poseidon and Dr. Bill Stone, CEO of Stone Aerospace. Called the Poseidon TECH (DIVER Volume 37 Number 4), the rebreather is scheduled to ship in November, and it features the latest in diving automation.

“Our goal,” explained Poseidon CEO Peter Swartling at the press briefing, “is to increase the level of automation by using smart systems that monitor every breath, make adjustments accordingly and interact with the user only when he or she needs to know what’s going on.”

In addition to the many automated features in Poseidon’s Mk-VI recreational rebreather such as a wet switch, an auto-checklist that verifies that cylinders have the correct gases and their values are open, and auto-oxygen sensor calibration and validation, the new TECH offers a “Dive-by-Wire” handset that is truly breaking new ground. This smaller than an iPhone device provides system information to the user and enables them to control the rebreather to the extent of doing a loop flush or adding oxygen at the touch of a virtual button. Of course the computer also warns and/or prevents the user from taking an action, like adding O2, if it was ill advised.

This level of automation gave ‘heebee-geebees’ to many of the tech divers I spoke with at the bar following Poseidon’s press conference, but I couldn’t help wondering if this is indeed the future of dive automation. Granted, 15 percent or so of rebreather divers prefer a strictly manual unit (sans solenoid) and other groups such as the DIR community don’t even trust dive computers; at least not the kind that you strap to your arm anyway. With this in mind I couldn’t help thinking, with not a little irony, that most of these people have no trouble trusting the ABS brakes in their cars or, for that matter, all the other systems in their vehicles reliant upon computer automation, as is the case with the many complex systems aboard the commercial aircraft that flew them to the weekend Forum. And the list goes on.

Stone, whose company builds autonomous vehicles for space exploration, addressed the issue head on in his talk, ‘Hazard Analysis and Human Factors’, posing the question, “Can we trust automation?” As an example, he recounted the development of the autonomous car that can navigate city streets without driver and showed video of prototypes in action. Stone said that within five years, you’ll be able to buy a car that will drive you home if you had a bit too much to drink, and it will do the job as safe or safer than a human driver. Are rebreathers far behind?

One of the major problems in rebreather (read car, train, plane, spacecraft etc.) safety is human ability, or rather inability, to manage and operate complex machines without incident. Stone’s solution, along with others such as Gurr’s soon-to-be released Hollis Explorer, is to simplify the human machine interface by reducing the ways that people interact with these systems, letting the computer do more of the work. “We have to move out of the test pilot era to a new paradigm,” Stone said.

Given that Stone’s vision of more than 25 years ago helped drive the creation of a consumer rebreather market (he could arguably be considered the godfather of modern rebreathers) his ideas should not lightly be dismissed.

At the closing session of the Forum, just before Dr. Simon Mitchell, who heads the department of anaesthesiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, brilliantly facilitated and crafted a series of community-consensus statements from the assembled

Forum participants (no small task!), audience members were encouraged to speak out and share their views. Andrew Fock, walked up to the mic and put the following question to the community, “Given that the fatality rates are five to 10 times that of open circuit scuba, should we morally offer this technology to the recreational diving community, before putting our house in order?”

There was silence as if no one wanted to tackle the question, then other participants took the stand and changed the topic. Eventually, Mark Caney, PADI’s Vice President of Rebreather Technologies, worked his way to the mic and addressed his comments to Fock.

“Yes we should,” he said. “Within certain parameters.”

One more thing:

Though it’s not the trigger, the primary cause of death in most rebreather fatalities is drowning. Some of these fatalities might have been prevented by use of a retainer strap to hold in the diver’s mouthpiece. Full-face masks and retainer straps have long been the standard in military diving and they were also a key recommendation from Rebreather Forum 2 (1996). While full masks introduce other problems for our diving applications and are not very suitable to sport diving, retaining straps arguably have the potential of saving lives. Rebreather instructor Paul Haynes who is a former military diver and business development director and trainer for DIVEX Ltd., made a strong case for retainer straps at the Forum, which recommended that the efficacy of using straps be taken up as a research question. We might all consider experimenting on ourselves.”

Special thanks to the Rebreather Forum 3 organizers!

Writer and technologist Michael Menduno published and edited aquaCorps: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), which helped usher tech diving into the mainstream of sports diving, and coined the term “technical diving.” He also organized the first Tek, EuroTek and AsiaTek conferences, and Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Menduno, who is based in Berkeley, CA remains an avid diver.

More from the forum:
Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5


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