US Navy is officially working on a new 'Iron Man' deep sea diving suit

A new "Iron Man" diving suit is currently in the works by the US Navy to enable divers to work for longer, at greater depths, and in fewer numbers.
Christopher McFadden
Image of the DSEND suit during testing in February 2023.

Ronnie Newsome/Navy 

The Navy Times reports that the United States Navy is developing and building a fully-enclosed, pressured, "Iron Man" suit for its deep sea diving teams. Called the Deep Sea Expeditionary with No Decompression, DSEND for short, the suit has been developed to improve diver safety drastically. It is also designed to enable fewer divers to work for longer hours at greater depths.

One man submarine

The suit, the Navy Times explains, is a form-fitted atmospheric dive suit with rotating and flexible joints. This provides the wearer with excellent mobility while keeping the internal pressure stable.

“It is a hard suit that the diver crawls into,” Paul McMurtrie, Naval Sea Systems Command diving systems program manager and a retired Navy master diver, told Navy Times. “A good depiction would be an Iron Man suit for a diver underwater," he added. Since Naval divers are often tasked with deep sea salvage, rescue, explosive disposal, and ship hull maintenance, such a suit would prove very useful.

This is especially true for divers at greater depths, as they must be mindful of decompression sickness or the "bends." For this reason, divers are currently restricted to the time they can spend at depth, often as little as 20 to 25 minutes. This is because they must travel to the work location using a saturation system (a diving bell) that has to be pressurized to match the outside water pressure.

With greater depths, the internal pressure of the bell must also increase, which is risky. Then once the work is finished, the entire process must be repeated on the ascent, with the bell stopping at regular intervals to enable the divers bodies to acclimatize. On the surface, the divers must also spend around an hour and a half in a decompression chamber. This is where DSEND could prove revolutionary.

It has been in development for over five years and effectively eliminates the need for the diving bell and the decompression chamber for Naval divers. For this reason, it will drastically increase the time divers can safely work at depth.

Needs further testing

“With the suit, we can drop the guy down to the bottom, and he can work for up to six hours and then come right back up,” McMurtrie explains. “He gets out of the suit. [The] next guy jumps in. Boom. He’s back down for another six hours," he added. “A job that would take mixed-gas divers two to three weeks to complete the suit could knock it out in a day or two with a much smaller team, a smaller footprint, and in the safety of not having to undergo decompression sickness,” McMurtrie said.

The suit is currently undergoing extensive testing, but it is hoped that it could be adopted by the Navy sometime after 2027.

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