In badass science news, they've built an aquatic gundam and they're going to use it to search for a 2,000 year old computer that even Jacques Cousteau couldn't find.
Filling the gap between a submarine and scuba gear, the Exosuit is an articulated rigid suit worn by a diver. It's loaded with cool capabilities [PDF], including intercom, video and data communication links, a rad carbon dioxide scrubbing system, a whopping 50 hour emergency support system and intense pincer-grabber hands. However the primary feature is its ability to maintain surface pressure for up to 1,000 feet below—depths where an unprotected diver would almost certainly suffer decompression sickness. Powered by vertical and horizontal thrusters that are engaged by moving the diver's feet, an umbilical link to a parent ship powers its movement, and voice, video and data links.
The Exosuit was designed by Nuytco Research, a marine robotic firm with a website worth poking around in. Priginally built for diving in "the bowels" of New York City's water treatment plants (good one, New Scientist), the suit recently got a saltwater test at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to further explore its capabilities. By removing the possibility of the Bends, the Exosuit could radically change manned underwater exploration, making deep-sea sites accessible in entirely new ways.
Rigorous sea testing of the suit's flexibility and durability is vital because it is slated for use on one of the world's most exciting shipwrecks as soon as September. Known as the Antikythera Wreck, the site was discovered by sponge divers off the coast of Greek island of Antikythera in 1900. The site is 120m deep and at the time of its discovery, divers could spend a dangerous maximum of five minutes on the floor. Even then, several of the original divers suffered paralysis and one died of complications from decompression. But the discoveries on the ancient Greek wreck might have been worth it. In addition to statues, amphora and precious booty of all varieties, the ship offered up a very odd piece of machinery that went under the radar until the 1950s.
At its time, the mysteriously complex mechanism was written off as unrelated to the early BC ship—nothing as intricate had been known of before the 1400s. Involving an estimated 30 gears and incredibly accurate positioning (the largest found gear is less than six inches wide, with 223 teeth) the machine made no sense in an ancient context. It took until 1974 for it to be dated officially: It was made (and lost) around 87 BC.
The Antikythera Mechanism is the oldest analog computer. Reconstructions estimate that it was a delicately geared box whose face showed the movements of planets and stars and could predict their relationships (relative to a set calendar) for decades. It could even have demonstrated eclipses. The more we know about this unprecedented (but presumably not unique) ancient tool, the more we'll understand about early uses of technology and math that have been lost.
In 1976, the famed explorer (and prescient Steve Zissou impersonator) Jacques Cousteau returned to the site with TV cameras and a good deal of public excitement. By that time diving technology had advanced enough to expand the sea floor visits to ten minutes, but the dangers of the Bends prevailed. Despite much preening and using a vacuum to recklessly lift out part of the ship, they came up with little.
Using this rotary-jointed humanoid submersible, researchers hope to expand investigation of the shipwreck dramatically and (pinchers crossed) find more parts of the Antikythera mechanism. The site is 500 square meters, and includes the hulk of another ship that had previously gone unnoticed. The chances of unearthing something seem high, but the suit and its operators still have several stages of testing and training left, starting with a dive for the American Museum of Natural History to look for bioluminescent life.
You can learn more about the incredible mechanism at the WHOI website, and follow along with the Exosuit project on its documentary blog.