How many times have you tried and failed to get your buddy’s attention underwater? Most of the time it’s just to point out something of interest that they missed, but sometimes an inability to signal your buddy could be a matter of life or death. Imagine the terror, for example, of finding yourself suddenly out of air and unable to get your buddy’s attention. Of course, if you are in shallow water you could perform a controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA) to the surface, but an alternate air-source ascent is far safer in an out-of-air situation. It’s also only possible if your buddy sees you signaling your distress: if they’re looking elsewhere you could drown before your buddy even realizes what has happened.
This was the scenario that Anders Brodin, the founder and managing director of Swedish company Aqwary, imagined when diving with his children. The fear of being unable to help them if he were looking elsewhere when an emergency situation arose inspired him to come up with the latest in diver-communication technology, the Smart Console.
Communication underwater poses many unique challenges. Electromagnetic waves used in many terrestrial communication networks are unsuitable for use underwater due to their inability to travel long distances through salt water. Instead, sound waves are the standard for underwater communication, specifically, projected through hydrophones like those used by many of the world’s navies. Aqwary has exploited this technology to enable divers to communicate with one another underwater via a device known as the Smart Console, which uses ultrasound to transmit information from one diver to another. The Console is essentially a small computer protected by a watertight, rubberized housing, which is in turn integrated with the diver’s cylinder by means of a thick, rubber tube. It is fitted with several sensors, the most important of which allows it to display the user’s remaining air pressure and location. Other Smart Console sensors include a magnetometer, an accelerometer, external and internal thermometers, a depth gauge and an internal-pressure sensor. The Smart Console is not a dive computer, i.e., it does not calculate decompression limits and ascent rates, but it does allow divers within a 328 feet radius of each other to share their dive statistics.
Each set of statistics is assigned under the diver’s name, and with a capacity for up to 70 divers simultaneously transmitting information, the Smart Console allows for an underwater network that could help save lives in the event of an emergency. The console works by sending out sound-wave data signals through four ultrasonic hydrophones, which can then be picked up and deciphered by other consoles in the vicinity. In this way, divers can monitor each other’s air supply, and prevent any out-of-air situation that could arise from an individual failing to check their own supply often enough. Additionally, if a diver becomes trapped or entangled, they can manually broadcast a distress signal using the Smart Console. In the event of a diver running low on air or sending out a distress signal, an alert is transmitted throughout the dive group, as well as to the dive boat on the surface.
According to Brodin, a more advanced model is already in the works that could allow users to download games for whiling away lengthy safety stops, and even to connect to the Internet while underwater. Currently, the bandwidth permitted by ultrasonic waves means that watching movies underwater is (thankfully) not yet a possibility.
While the Smart Console seems to be an intelligent piece of equipment that might be useful for some, it may not be to everybody’s tastes. For me, the chance to get away from technology and become immersed in the quiet serenity of nature is one of the biggest attractions of diving. I worry that receiving updates from up to 70 divers throughout a dive may well feel more like a busy day in the office than an escape into the silent realm of the ocean. Similarly, whether with manta rays or passing pelagics, many of my most exciting creature encounters have happened while hanging in the blue on a safety stop. If I’d been preoccupied with games I might have missed them completely. Distractions underwater, such as online entertainment, could seriously affect diver concentration and ultimately lead to more of the accidents the Console was designed to prevent. Unfortunately, the Smart Console doesn’t allow divers to point out interesting sights to oblivious buddies. For that we’ll have to continue to rely on rattles, tank bangers or shouting through our regulator mouthpieces.
There is also an argument that divers should be as self-sufficient as possible — if they’re not well trained enough to be responsible for their own air supply, perhaps they shouldn’t be diving in the first place. Equally, sending out a distress signal when trapped in a cave or wreck may lead untrained divers to attempt a rescue, which could exacerbate the situation and result in more casualties. The Smart Console could potentially be very useful in finding lost buddies, but its usefulness depends on both members of a buddy pair owning a Console. That being said, the Smart Console undoubtedly has value as an additional piece of safety equipment. The ability to monitor the status of the divers around you would enable a dive group to make sensible decisions, and to stay well within the safe limits of recreational diving. It could also be a great tool for professional divers, allowing divemasters and instructors to keep an eye on each of their students simultaneously, a difficult task without an aid like the Smart Console. And for a device emitting ultrasonic waves, testing has not shown the Console to have any adverse effect on marine life.
The Smart Console can withstand depths of up to 164 feet, has a 3.7-inch OLED display and a battery life of up to 10 hours. It also comes with 32 GB of memory, a 536MHz processor, and the ability to connect to the Cloud via Wi-Fi, enabling users to save dive data upon returning to the surface. It’s also possible to download apps to the Smart Console via its App Store, including fish ID slates, digital compasses and more advanced dive computers. The Smart Console retails for around $800 USD.
The first of the Smart Consoles are expected to ship this month — will you be joining the line for yours?