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TAKE 5: The ON&T Interview with William Kohnen

TAKE 5: The ON&T Interview with William Kohnen
(Image credit: ON&T Magazine)

In late June 2023, manned submersibles dominated the mainstream headlines, and not for the right reasons. This month’s esteemed guest, Will Kohnen, President & CEO of Hydrospace Group and the current Chair of MTS’ Submarine Committee, joined us to set the record straight on the unrecognized safety record of submarines.

  1. Clearly, the OceanGate incident has been something of a stress test for the manned submersible industry. What can we learn from the whole episode?
  2. As tragic as it was, the loss of OceanGate's submersible, Titan, serves as a stark reminder of the critical need to uphold responsible safety standards, comply with industry regulations, and carry out thorough third-party testing and validation.

    Prior to this disaster, most people were relatively oblivious to the world of manned submersibles and probably unaware of the industry’s stellar safety record. Many observers of June’s frenzied media cycle were learning about modern, non-military submersibles for the first time—and the news was bleak, with international headlines citing catastrophic mechanical failure and diminishing hope for the passengers aboard.

    Within days, more profound questions began to emerge: What defines a “tourist” submersible? What are the required safety and rescue protocols for a mission like this? Who is responsible for the certification and regulation of submersible crafts of this nature? Seeking answers, the media reached out to several experts in the field.

    As the Co-Founder of SEAmagine Hydrospace Corp, a world leader in the design and manufacture of modern submersible vehicles since 1995, I was one of them. I also established the Hydrospace Group in 2010 to answer a more general call for high-reliability systems specialized in pressure vessels for human occupancy, which extends from deep ocean submersibles to medical and space capsules—so I welcomed the discussion.

  3. So, you became something of a spokesperson for the submersible industry?
  4. Well, I have chaired the Submarine Committee, previously the Manned Underwater Vehicles (MUV) Committee, of the Marine Technology Society (MTS) since 2003, and so for the last two decades have enjoyed a front-row seat to the significant growth of the industry and the huge technological advancements made in submarine engineering.

    However, my professional experience was not what garnered initial media attention. Instead, investigative journalists sought to authenticate a letter leaked to the New York Times that was sent to OceanGate outlining the catastrophic consequences that the Titan submersible risked if it did not adhere to certain production and safety standards. It was a private correspondence I authored in 2018 on behalf of dozens of industry members worldwide, sharing a deep concern with the company’s approach.

    But as we now know, despite the committee’s concerns, OceanGate’s CEO, Stockton Rush, agreed to disagree on the raised technical concerns and pressed forward with his submersible concept without soliciting further input, review, or certification by any third-party agency. The design and build were 100% proprietary and undisclosed. In fact, as the crisis unfolded, only the crew and OceanGate employees knew the technical specifications of the Titan.

    Today, there are nine submersibles capable of diving to the depths of the RMS Titanic (3,800 m). Titan was number 10 and the only vehicle not officially classed. The OceanGate craft was an outlier, best described as an experimental, deep ocean exploration submersible and not representative of the broader submersible industry. It is also worth noting that no other submersible built to operate at these hostile and challenging depths has ever been designed to accommodate five occupants, with three being the certified maximum.

    Theoretically, if the vessel had been certified by an outside party, we would have had access to important details relating to the sub’s build, its components, and the safety and redundancy options. The lack of information about any form of emergency response plan, which is an essential element of any deep-sea operation, left chaos in the wake.

  5. What would be the correct form of an emergency plan for an incident of this nature?
  6. It is an industry standard to have a clearly defined and drilled chain of command, with sanctioned delineation of who is called, and when, after a loss of communication with the submarine. If a second vehicle—e.g., another submarine or a remotely operated vehicle (ROV)—is not available on deck, then there is a third-party operator on-call and ready to respond.

    Over the decades, the submarine industry has successfully incorporated such safety protocols, covering technological, engineering, and material innovations, as well as at-sea operations, to better safeguard against accidents like this.

    Numerous national and international authorities and organizations, such as the US Coast Guard and the International Marine Organization (IMO), have published easy-to-access guidelines for the design, construction, and operation of passenger submersible craft. These guidelines—which really came into focus during the 1980s and 1990s at a time when engineering breakthroughs triggered an expansion of the commercial submersible industry—are translated into practice by Classification Societies, professional organizations that oversee every phase of development, from concept to sea trials.

    There are several class agencies around the world, such as the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), DNV, Lloyd’s Register, and NAVSEA, to name a few, and the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), a non-governmental organization, provides a forum within which the member societies can discuss, research, and adopt technical criteria that enhance maritime activities.

    The Titan incident was avoidable, and it should not overshadow the submersible industry’s extraordinary safety record. Out of the 326 submersibles built worldwide since 1960, approximately 160–180 are currently active, with depth ratings varying from 30–11,000 m, or full ocean depth. Somewhere between 30,000–50,000 dives are logged every year. The industry had maintained a flawless safety record since the mid-1970s—zero fatalities, even with the number of dives having increased tenfold over the last five decades—until that ill-fated dive on June 18.

    These credentials speak not only to the subsea engineering might of a community that puts safety above all else but also to the cooperation and conformity among operators to a validated system of safety rules, regulations, and protocols that are continuously subject to review and improvement.

  7. Tell us more about MTS’s Submarine Committee…
  8. Established in 1968, the Submarine Committee (previously the Manned Underwater Vehicles (MUV) Committee) of MTS has always been dedicated to safe and responsible ocean exploration and so has played no small role in establishing a unique sense of shared ownership among members for ensuring that meticulous engineering practices and unwavering adherence to national and international safety standards are the hallmarks of this close-knit industry.

    This year, we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Submarine Symposium at the International Workboat Show where the global submarine community—manufacturers, owners, operators, pilots, regulators, and support service providers alike—comes together to share insights and discuss the future of our industry.

    The agenda is full, with researchers operating deep ocean exploration submersibles from the United States, France, Japan, China, and India on hand to discuss their missions. This year's event will have an added focus on international submarine operation safety standards through a workshop led by the US Coast Guard and multiple jurisdictional agencies around the world. Representatives from the US, Canada, France, UK, Japan, India, US Navy, NOAA, ISMERLO, IMO, ABS, and DNV, plus industry members of all different sectors of the submarine world will be present. The objective is to explore ways to enhance the robustness of jurisdictional coverage of our recognized safety standards for submarine operations in national and international waters.

  9. So, what does the future hold for the submarine industry?

There is much to be excited about. We will continue to see submarine design cater for varied deployments, from marine scientific research expeditions and offshore infrastructure services in the deep to leisure and tourism excursions in the shallows. It is hard to overstate just how much progress the industry has made to broaden the appeal and utility of manned submersibles in recent years. Technical progress across the whole supply chain, from build materials to components to updated safety features, points to a new age of underwater exploration—for all—with risk mitigation front and center.

Ocean technologists will continue to invest time in both crewed and uncrewed solutions, and the capacity for these to coexist to accelerate our learning and appreciation of the blue planet is what drives innovation.

  1. While submersible designs vary based on application, one consistent is a rigorous adherence to industry standards and safety protocols. (Image credit: Hydrospace Group)
  2. MTS’ Subamrine Committee will convene for the 20th edition of the Submarine Symposium at this year’s International Workboat Show. (Image credit: MTS/Submarine Committee)

This story was originally featured in ON&T Magazine's October/November 2023 issue. Click here to read more.


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