Michael Lombardi is a self-employed contract diver and undersea specialist based in Rhode Island. His work has taken him to the cold north Atlantic Ocean and Antarctic waters. A 2007 PBN Forty Under 40 winner, Lombardi is also founder of nonprofit Ocean Opportunity, which is engaged in ocean-related education and outreach activities.
Early this month, Lombardi was the first to train in a new deep sea diving system called the Exosuit. Lombardi and a team of researchers are planning one of the first expeditions to use the suit.
PBN: What is so revolutionary about the Exosuit?
LOMBARDI: The Exosuit is an Atmospheric Diving System, meaning the pilot/diver remains at surface pressure – just like here on land. Conventional “wet” diving exposes the diver to increased pressure with depth which is the cause for a whole host of physiological problems. With those removed, a diver can experience the underwater world without human limitations. This ADS technology is not necessarily new, however it’s been more than two decades since major improvements have been made. In this case, the primary revolutionary component is integration of sophisticated modern computers and electronics.
PBN: What is it like to dive in the suit?
LOMBARDI: I’ve spent more than 4,000 hours underwater, and diving [in] this suit was like calling those 4,000 hours “day one.” There is an entirely new learning curve to go through, which will just take time. Once inside the suit, a slight vacuum is pulled. At that point, you may as well be a million miles from home as you are solely dependent on your support team and the technology to have a successful mission. This is entirely analogous to manned space missions. It takes a very special appreciation for spatial and situational awareness, coupled with an acute sense of self, to be comfortable while operating within such a tight space (within the suit itself), and make careful movements to accomplish a task.
PBN: What do you plan to study using the suit’s expanded diving capabilities?
LOMBARDI: The possibilities are endless. Just along the coastal U.S. alone, the continental shelf spans an area the size of Texas – more than 260,000 square miles. Only a fraction of a percent of this area has ever been seen by humans firsthand. This technology will allow us to see this frontier for the first time, observe and document its natural history, and thereafter make informed decisions on how to further study, potentially exploit, and/or protect that part of our planet. This also opens up an entirely new region of ocean space in the open ocean – an area where any human exposure has been in extremely limited snapshots. My first planned mission is to explore the open ocean to 1000 feet right off of the Rhode Island coast – likely in 2014.
PBN: How have you seen developments in technology like this change diving and exploration in the last decade?
LOMBARDI: To be honest, very, very little has changed in diving technology in the last decade. Isolated exploration efforts have put some existing technologies to work in new ways, but we are still in an evolutionary upswing with diving technology. This is largely due to the challenge in justifying manned exploration over robotics in these extreme environments. I’ve seen the promise firsthand in recent years – discovering new species of fish, personally setting foot in the lower limits of what we call “mesophotic” (middle light) ecosystems nearing 500 feet of depth, and it goes on. Getting there is half the battle. Bringing home new knowledge that justifies continued advancement is the second half, and where we are today.
PBN: How do you anticipate technology changing exploration in the next 10 years?
LOMBARDI: The next 10 years will be paradigm changing. With growing interest in a manned visit to Mars, I see huge promise in manned ocean exploration as a sea-to-space analogue as models are created to better understand a Mars mission. Space has always drawn more financial resources than the ocean, which is unfortunate given how little we know about our own planet. However, in this case, we can use the ocean as a very real model working environment to consider what we may be up against on Mars, and beyond. In 10 years, I would expect that we’ll have some refocused international science priorities on the continental shelf and be placing humans there with some routine continuity – and have our sights set on distant horizons.