One-man, man-made composite submersible

Composites industry veteran Richard Thompson manufactures handmade, glass fiber composite submersibles in his garage, targeting search, rescue and recovery applications

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When Richard Thompson was a boy, he found a small, plastic toy submarine in his cereal box one morning. He marveled at the prospect of gliding beneath the water and yearned for a real submarine of his own someday.

That day is here. Thompson, who has worked in the composites manufacturing industry (trucks, boats) since he was 15 years old, turned the garage in his Blue Springs, Mo., home into a factory and has begun manufacturing submersibles, using glass-fiber composites. The resulting craft weighs 4,000 lb/1,814 kg and measures about 10-ft/3.1m long and 10-ft/3.1m wide, wing to wing.

Thompson makes two variants of the craft. One, with flat porthole windows, is designed for use at a maximum depth of 100 ft/30.5m. The other, fitted with convex porthole windows, is designed for a maximum depth of 500 ft/152m — although Thompson calculates that it could safely descend to a depth of 2,000 ft/610m.
Thompson makes the craft on a two-part (top, bottom) fiberglass mold. The 1.25-inch/32-mm-thick hull comprises a gel coat skin layer from Cook Composites & Polymers (CCP, Kansas City, Mo.) backed by 30 layers of 1.5-oz PPG (Pittsburgh, Pa.) glass mat fabric, applied three to four layers at a time and wet out with an all-purpose polyester resin from CCP. Each fabric layer is rolled by hand, and the entire structure is UV light cured. The holes for the windows are cut with a lathe Thompson has in his shop. Thompson says it takes about three months to make one submersible.

The craft features a hook and arm for recovery operations, top hatch entry, steer-by-wire, an up/down thruster, one thruster each for left and right, air capacity for up to three hours, an air scrubber outfitted with lithium hydroxide crystals, an emergency air supply, a GPS, 12 hours of 24V battery power and 2.25-inch/57-mm-thick porthole windows. Each submersible accommodates one person comfortably in a seated position, but Thompson says two can squeeze in, if necessary. Ballast is provided by tanks in the wings, which are filled with water for diving; compressed air blows out the wing tanks during ascent.

Thompson’s submersibles sell for $500,000 (USD) and, he says, have generated interest from fire and police departments interested in a watercraft to aid water rescue operations. He can be reached at (816) 503-2335.

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