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May 14, 2007

Pegasus Thruster -- Innovations in SCUBA gear

A big part of my career as a writer, editor and reviewer I have pursued for the past 15 years or so is evaluating new products, figuring out how they fit in, and what their chances for success are. Some are compelling enough to get enthusiastic about, others are incremental improvements, and quite often I found myself shaking my head and wondering, "What were they thinking?!" I must admit that every time I don my scuba gear the "What were they thinking?!" crosses my mind as I fight with some of that unwieldy, heavy equipment. True, it becomes a lot less unwieldy once in the water, but still, it's hard to believe that the current tangle of hoses and snaps and clasps is optimal, that certain aspects of the technology employed is leading instead of trailing edge, and that we aren't in store for some very significant improvement that are not only safer and more convenient, but also make us look less like a Borg out of Star Trek -- a fictitional race of ghoulish cyborgs -- and more like the sleek, stylish divers Cousteau envisioned with his initial scuba gear.

As a result, I am also intrigued to see innovation in scuba gear. I'd love to get my hands on one of those Oceanics masks that have a heads-up display showing all vital dive computer data right in front of your eyes. I was appalled at the four air hoses floating around me in my standard scuba class gear and thrilled when I found I could eliminate one by using a wireless air-integrated dive computer and another by combining the secondary air supply and the BC air hose into a single hose feeding both my BC and my Scubapro AIR2 secondary. Yes, I like innovation, and especially innovation that reduces clutter and simplifies things.

This brings me to a device I came across as I perused the annual Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge. It's the Pegasus Thruster, a novel approach to an underwater propulsion device. Underwater propulsion devices are used to cover distance quickly without exerting oneself needlessly and using up precious air. That comes in handy in cave penetration, and it can also be great fun just scooting around. Problem is that those underwater scooters are quite large. Most are barrel-type devices reminiscent of a shop-vac. They have handles and you hold onto them with both hands. Not exactly optimal when you need a hand for something else, like photography or shooting video. Well, three guys in Florida created a different kind of underwater scooter, the Pegasus Thruster.

Their idea was creating something that is light, handy, and hands-free. There were also practical considerations, like being able to operate the scooter in a variety of ways and replacing its battery while underwater. So Dean Vitale and his partners Steve Williams and Howard Sorkin came up with a sleek, elegant unit that is mounted on the back of the diver, on the air tank. The whole thing weighs just 12 pounds, roughly a third to a quarter of a scuba tank. Under water it adds maybe five pounds of negative buoyancy --- easily compensated for via an extra air bladder if so desired. The initial model just has an on/off switch that can be operated by hand, or even by the movement of your head. The little unit is supposed to propel the diver forward at a speed of three knots, which translates into about 3.5 miles per hour. That's more than a good current, and a bit faster than one normally walks on land. Not bad at all. The battery is said to last for a good hour and can be released via a locking pin. Oh, and should the propeller, already protected by wiremesh, become entangled, a safety clutch will keep it from becoming damaged. And you can take it down to 400 feet. And since it is back-mounded, there's never the danger that it kicks up silt. The picture to the left combines screen snaps from the presentation and from the Pegasus Thruster website's video. Click on it for a larger version.

A very cool idea, for sure, and a simple look at the device confirms its sleekness. A patent has been submitted, of course, #20060243188. It claims A scuba diving propulsion system comprising a propulsion apparatus comprising (a) a bracket; (b) apparatus securing said propulsion apparatus to said tank; (c) a battery mounted on said housing; (d) a motive power module mounted on said housing, and including an electric motor, a transmission operatively associated with said motor to increase the torque produced by said motor, a propeller shaft operatively associated with said transmission, and a propeller mounted on said propeller shaft.

There are some very smart details, like a torque increasing transmission, a mounting bracket system that adapts to a tank, and a general design that provides slight downward thrust so that the diver never accidentally shoots toward the surface. There are other details, like provisions to mount the device onto double tanks, or to mount two devices onto a single tank. There are safety measures like automatic cut-off should the unit overheat. And splitting the design into completely sealed modules doesn't only make sense from an underwater battery replacement point of view. It also makes sense as different parts of such a propulsion system generate and absorb different gasses. There isn't any indication as to type and technology of battery power, or how, exactly, it would be replaced underwater. Or how it handles and how you make it go this way or that since you don't hold it in your hands like a conventional scooter.

The trio submitted the Pegasus Thruster to the Miami Herald's Business Plan Challenge. 135 entries were received, 13 were chosen as finalists. The competition was lofty. These were not high school science projects. A plan to screen for adverse drug reactions, one of the leading causes of healthcare disasters, took first place. The Pegasus Thruster came in second. Wow. The Miami Herald wrote a story on the surprisingly strong showing. The trio has invested about $200,000 into the invention so far. Prototypes have been tested by marine cinematographers, the International Association of Handicapped Divers, and the Miami-Dade's Police Underwater Recovery Unit. Initial production units should become available later in 2007, for about $2,400. Though the potential market is significant -- from individuals to scuba gear rental places to professional divers -- the planned ramp-up is conservative. Maybe 20 to 50 units a month.

Hey, it's a very cool idea. The group's website has an excellent underwater demonstration video and there is another video of the trio making its business presentation at the Miami Herald. I wish the video would include a demo on how the unit is operated and how the battery is changed underwater, but that will come. One potential concern I'd have is that having an additional device on your back, and especially one with a propeller and wiremesh, may present a danger of getting caught or entangled, so a quick release is a must in my book. Else, I want one!

Posted by conradb212 at May 14, 2007 11:12 PM