Groundbreaking underwater exploration craft nears production
Ornithorhynchus anatinus is a bizarre creature. Not only due to its crazy duck, beaver and otter mash-up anatomy, but because it inhabits two watery worlds – one at the surface of small streams or rivers and the other below. When François-Alexandre Bertrand saw one sploshing about during a séjour in Australia, he'd found the perfect name for an above/below water craft concept he was mulling over. Design renderings for the Platypus emerged in 2011, followed by a working prototype two years later and a production timeframe set for 2014. It's taken a little longer than expected to get there, but the Platypus team is finally bringing the novel exploration craft to market later this year. We popped down to the south coast of France a few days ago to talk new design and production plans. And to ride on, and under, the surprisingly chilly waters of the Mediterranean.
Before, ahem, diving in, a Platypus recap. Five years ago, the idea was to produce an electric-powered craft that would allow its pilot and passengers to boat around above the surface to a spot ripe for underwater exploration, then lower a pod beneath the waves and have a mooch around below without the need for special diving equipment.
Each pontoon of the catamaran was to have an electric motor at the back and a lithium polymer battery power bank for a top speed of between 10-12 knots (up to 22 km/h) and an eight hour range (depending on how hard the motors were pushed). The central pod could be lowered by up to 1.5 m (5 ft) beneath the water by electric-powered pivoting arms, and piloted underwater at a gentle 3-4 kt (7.5 km/h max).
The only equipment needed by the sub-sea explorers would be masks supplied with air from an onboard compressor that could pump away for about 8 hours. More adventurous types could leave the safety of the pod and explore a little way beyond thanks to 15 m (50 ft) retractable air hoses. Eco-tourism, the leisure industry and professional applications were to be the main markets, but the unique craft also had the potential to offer disabled water babies a safe platform for independent underwater exploration.
Experimental testbed breaks cover
By November 2013, the design had jumped off the drawing board and a working prototype had been tested on, and under, the water. It had two Torqeedo electric motors juiced by a Li-ion battery pack for a range of 30 nautical miles (55.5 km) when boating along at 5 kt (9 km/h), with the speed dropping by around half when the pod was lowered beneath the water. The two-seater central pod rode about 50 cm (20 in) above the waves when in boat mode.
With the pod hydraulically lowered around 2 m (6.5 ft) into the water, an electric air compressor pumped air from outside the 5.7 m (18.7 ft) long, 2.46 m (8 ft) wide and 720 kg (1,590 lb) craft to mask-wearing users below.
At this point, the company first revealed its intention to ramp up the surface mode speed to 14 kt (26 km/h) by swapping out the electric motors for two 9.9 hp Mercury engines. The prototype was pre-homologated as a cat C boat, with plans to make the production model CE certified as a standard boat.
"The issue with electric today is that when we go out on a lagoon or a lake, calm water, it's really cool, works very well, but in the sea, the issue is the range," Bertrand told us during our visit to Ramatuelle in the south of France. "For example, to give you an idea, we had two 4 kW Torqeedo motors and 12 kW of batteries and we reached an average speed of 10 knots, which was really good, but the range on the lake was 30 miles. In the sea we could only go up to one hour and thirty minutes, which was too limited. You know when you're on the ocean or the sea you're fighting the current, you're fighting the waves and you are consuming too much power. That's the issue today.
"The main concept of the Platypus is to have a real boat, able to navigate on the water to reach the diving place we want to go to and then be able to navigate under the surface. And if we want to do that for our major customers – mainly in places like the Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Seychelles and Thailand – in all these places you've got a really strong sea, we really needed to prove that the concept of the Platypus is a real boat first."
Shortly after the prototype reveal, Bertrand released images and specs for a production model, which was to have larger pontoons for improved surface navigation, be capable of carrying four instead of two and a steering system located on a new rear platform instead of on the central pod. Pre-orders were opened up and all looked set for a release the following year. But it was not to be.
"When we announced at the end of 2013 that we were going into production the following year, we then realized that even though it was a big jump from the prototype to the version we announced in 2013, we still had a lot of challenges to face," explained Bertrand. "The biggest was the architecture of the boat itself – it was still a catamaran."
Tests with the prototype revealed that when the pod was submerged, waves hitting the pontoons above caused some instability below. "We went back to research and development and had some discussions with VPLP, our naval architects, and concluded that we need to have a trimaran. This is the main difference on the version [prototype] today and the production Platypus."
That brings us nicely up to the present. The whole project thus far has eaten up some €400,000 (about US$445,000), a quarter of that for the patent alone. A pre-production alert has been sent out and potential customers invited to join Bertrand and team on the French Mediterranean coast near St Tropez to try out the current prototype and have a look at renderings of the new design. Gizmag journeyed down, too – and jumped aboard. Sort of.
Dive! Dive! Dive!
I originate from the North East of England, so the cold doesn't really bother me as much as it might those native to southern France. And it was with these thoughts running through my mind that I dipped my toes into the gentle waves lapping the beach at Ramatuelle. Not too bad. The further out I wandered, though, and the higher the swell, the colder the water got. Taking my breath away on more than one occasion and making me regret the decision not to seek out a wetsuit.
The Platypus prototype recently underwent a refit by manufacturing partner CDO Innov to add an aluminum support structure to prevent movement of the pontoons and so improve stability. It has padded seating for two, with the pilot up front, and the passenger behind. Each is strapped to the craft with airplane-like seatbelts and sits with feet flat on the platform below the seat, resting against the metal fins.
The pilot steers the craft using two levers to adjust the power output of the engines, and the passenger is instructed to relax while up top – it's just like a boat. As the speed picked up, the waves inevitably popped over the raised pod, and cool, refreshing Mediterranean sea water splashed over our feet. Bertrand stopped a ways out from shore and told me to grip the handlebar in front tightly when below the surface to help counter the pressure against the body as the pod cuts through the clear waters below the pontoons.
The time came to fit a "modified" Ocean Reef full-face mask. The original mask has plugs for the nose, but Bertrand reckons that the underwater experience is much less stressful for newbies if everyone is able to breathe normally – that is, through either nose or mouth, not just by mouth as would be case with diving masks – so he ripped out the nose plugs. All seemed secure, and the hydraulic arms gently lowered the pod below the surface. Then panic set in as water started seeping through the top of the mask.
I had been instructed to wave my arm when Bertrand looked back as soon as we were under, or to rap the side of the pod with my fist if he wasn't checking on me (which he did frequently). I had confirmed a secure seal and all looked OK up top, but my lengthy beard had interfered with a watertight fit. Bertrand quickly raised the pod slightly so that my head was above the water and after a short adjustment, my wannabe Cousteau adventures resumed afresh.
Before we embarked on our 15 minute (or so) jaunt, Bertrand repeatedly apologized for the slight sour taste of the air that would come through the pump. The tube that's used to feed the air below via the hookah system on the prototype sits a little too close to the hydraulic system and air quality suffers a little as a result. The Platypus prototype serves as an ongoing boat/submersible test lab so still has some rough edges.
And he was, of course, quite correct. The air did have a bit of a "living in the city" tinge to it, but such things have been taken into consideration for the new design. With breathing slowed to normal, and all signs of panic a distant memory, it was time to have a look around.
A couple of meters below the Platypus pod, the Med's slightly pale blue-tinged seabed rippled before us. Few fish venture this close to the anchored boats off the picturesque coast of Ramatuelle, but I did spot a few piscine delights scattered here and there on the periphery. A few small pink jellyfish too, which I was assured were harmless ahead of my adventure.
Despite a choppy boat out to the "dive" point suggesting a potentially rocky ride under the sea, the pod suspended by satisfyingly capable-looking arms was surprisingly stable. I expected vomit-inducing rock 'n' roll. There was none.
I reckon I spent less than 5 submerged minutes, but they were the most enjoyable moments I've ever spent on assignment for Gizmag. The experience was magical.
On paper, the Platypus looks impressive, mold-breaking, innovative. In the flesh, even more so. But going out on what was effectively my first dive without needing any special equipment, no special training and little more than a few swimming certificates to my name was a real eye opener. No tanks on my back, wearing just a t-shirt and shorts and riding pillion beneath the waves on something akin to an underwater motorbike.
Cool ride for beginners, but what about seasoned divers?
Earlier in the day, Christophe Samson, Managing Director of Ramatuelle's Cap Camarat Plongée (diving center), also tried the Platypus for the first time. He said "it was a good experience, interesting, but a little bit frustrating as it was quite short. I would like to experience more."
He was surprised by "the behavior of the boat when you have real movement of the waves, because we were not where it's calm, we were around the other side where there are strong waves. It was interesting, because when we were at the surface we were in trouble, but when we went down everything was smooth."
Samson sees great potential for the Platypus in introducing nervous beginners to the joys of underwater exploration, providing an enjoyable first look that could encourage folks to venture further, either from the Platypus itself or learning to dive with fins and a tank.
Like other potential customers, he did have questions and concerns relating to regulations, safety requirements and possible adaptations necessary for them to use the Platypus in their business models. But as the Platypus has been in development for a good while now, many of the points raised have already cropped up and are being incorporated into the upcoming production version or will be dealt with during customer-specific builds.
Slick new production Platypus
The ready-for-market version of the Platypus has been given a fresh modern look courtesy of French naval architects Van Peteghem Lauriot Prévost. It will be 5.8 m long and 2.24 m wide (19 x 7.35 ft), with aluminum construction, including an internal support structure, for strength and durability. Bertrand expects the finish options to be top notch, with customer branding for businesses also possible. It will also feature readily available, as opposed to in-house, components.
"At the very start, we wanted to have innovation everywhere, for the hydraulic system, the propulsion system etc. etc.," Bertrand reflected. "But today we really only want to have standard equipment. So if you have an issue with the engine, you're going to go to Torqeedo, or you're going to go to Mercury. If you have an issue with the hydraulic system, it's going to be standard so it can be maintained by people you know. If you have someone who specializes in hydraulic systems in the Seychelles or Maldives, for example, he's going to be able to repair or maintain the system so you wouldn't have to go direct to the manufacturer."
The Platypus will be offered in a number of variants. The base model will come without included motors/engines, allowing customers to use their own outboard engines. The craft can be fitted out with two 9.9 hp Mercury ICE engines, but if the customer intends to explore calm waters only, such as lakes or lagoons, then 4 kW Torqeedo motors can be requested. Bertrand also revealed that he hopes to "provide a premium version of the Platypus with two 10 kW motors, a new model from Torqeedo, and we're going to multiply the battery package by two to go up to 24 kW. We'll be working with Torqeedo to integrate the new systems with the Platypus."
"We really want to make this happen because, though the gas engines work very well, it is the opposite of the Platypus mindset," he explained "We want to have something eco-friendly and quiet. We really want to position the Platypus at the opposite of a jet-ski, for example. A jet-ski is very aggressive and loud, you're on the water and you want to go fast. For the Platypus, we want to offer a clean boat able to navigate on the surface at an average speed of 15 knots, we think that's enough, and with enough power to face a strong sea, to take you to the place you want to dive."
Passenger capacity has increased from two to five (including the pilot), and weight has been bumped way up to 990 kg (2,200 lb). Direction and speed controls will be via a handlebar and throttle system, similar to what's used for jet-skis, instead of levers.
"With the electric motor, you've got big torque, so at low speed we had good steering with left and right [levers]," Bertrand told us. "With a gas engine, the two 9.9 hp we have today, at low revs the steering is not good enough. Not very responsive. We want to have a very easy system for our final customers. This is the reason the jet-ski is really interesting and we're going to use it.
"Also, on the prototype, the 'driver' is located at the front of the pod. Here the control system will be located at the rear. Why did we do that? It's OK to drive a boat from the rear, but then, when you're under the surface, the driver or captain is going to be able to watch and survey the passengers to make sure that everything is fine."
As touched on earlier, the new production version is to be a trimaran, where the pod doesn't ride above the waves but acts like an extra hull.
"With the catamaran, we need a lot of power to raise the pod above the surface using the two-meter hydraulic arms, and it's a lot of effort on the structure of boat, so we're limited to two people," Bertrand said. "To have three, four, five people on the pod in the middle we're going to need a lot of power and the structure needs to be bigger. We talked with our potential customers and all of them – diving centers, resorts and the premium markets – said that only two people on a boat that's going to cost €80,000 to €100,000 is going to be a little bit too limited."
The Platypus team had to find a way to keep the craft's length at around six meters but accommodate one pilot and up to four passengers, while having a stable platform and not putting too much strain on the hydraulic lifting/lowering system and the craft itself.
"The trimaran was the real solution," Bertrand confirmed. "The hull in the middle is going to support 50 percent of the floatability of the boat, and with the ballast we're going to reduce a lot of effort on the arms. When we're underwater, the ballast is going to be full of water. We're going to have the pod up to two meters below the water with five people on it, with 300 or 400 kg of ballast that's going to stabilize the whole boat when navigating under the water."
Another benefit of the new design is that the hydraulic system will no longer be required to lift the pod clear of the water, which is a big plus. "The hydraulic arms are going to work in the water because the effort is really low, because you don't have all the weight of the structure and the people. You, me, everyone under the water, we float." The combination of hydraulics and ballast means that the pod can be raised enough for all passengers to get their heads above the water in a few short seconds – an important safety feature – and then the water within the pod can be ejected to bring it to its final resting position, a process that's estimated to take around a minute.
An integrated electric hookah air compressor system – based on an existing design by Italy's Nardi Compressori – will provide air sourced from above the water to passengers down below. An air tank backup system integrated into the hull is also planned as a safety precaution. A digital periscope comprising a 360 degree camera system feeding live video footage into a waterproof display in front of the pilot is also earmarked for inclusion.
In addition to the cool aluminum used in construction, the Platypus will also be decked out with wooden panels to make walking around the craft and access to the central pod a little easier, and mask the hydraulic arms. There's a platform measuring about two square meters at the rear that will allow passengers to sit or stand while out on the water, while also providing for easier access for disabled users (who can be pushed onto the platform in a wheelchair from, say, a jetty, secured in a harness and then lowered onto the pod). The Platypus team is working with ex-F1 driver Philippe Streiff, who was left quadriplegic after a pre-race test run in 1989, to make the craft accessible for disabled users.
The year of the Platypus
Bertrand revealed that production in France is set to start toward the end of 2016, though exactly when is currently an unknown. "We are going to be able to produce 10 Platypus next year, and we already have seven orders," he confirmed. Before that happens, though, the craft is going to be homologated as a boat both above and beneath the surface. And once strict French regulations have been met, it's expected that necessary certification in other countries should be relatively straightforward.
Final pricing has also been announced, ranging from €60,000 (about US$67,000) for the base model up to €150,000 (US$167,000) for the bells-and-whistles range-topper. A fully-equipped Platypus, for use by such concerns as diving centers, with "something like 20 hp engines multiplied by two" is expected to come in at around €85,000.
"We are also working on a really big version in order to clean the hull of a ship directly in the water," answered Bertrand when asked about future plans. "And we want to use it for garbage, we want to clean the coast. We've got a big issue today with plastic. Everybody is talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We love the Boyan project, the Ocean Cleanup Project. But we're going to have a solution to solve the issue at the source, the sea coast."
He reckons that a large percentage of plastic waste begins its ocean-choking lifecycle at the coast. The waste will float out, some will drop below the surface and some will sink to the bottom. "We are going to be able, with CDO Innov (which specializes in environment cleaning machines), to have a pump on the Platypus that's able to deal with waste on the surface, floating below and on the sea bed. We're going to have like a giant vacuum cleaner."
The Platypus is again up for pre-order, and we'll be keeping an eye on progress. In the meantime, updates will be posted to the team's Facebook page.
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