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San Antonio Research Org To Build Australian Rescue Sub

Pheonix Holdings International
Another SwRI designed rescue submersible prepares to be launched.

The Royal Australian Navy will be able to rescue sailors in disabled submarines 2,000 feet underwater thanks to a San Antonio-based research organization.

Southwest Research Institute announced Tuesday it will design one for the Australian Navy. SwRI built a similar unit for the the United States Navy in 2001 that is still in use.

The Navy wanted to use the unit to find a Argentine submarine that disappeared in November 2017. But they didn't get a chance, and the sub remained missing for a year. It was later discovered in a deep trench. Forty-four died on board.

The future Australian unit is designed to dive safely to a depth of 650 meters, or 2,100 feet.

“Any deeper and than that and you can guarantee there’s nothing left of the submarine to rescue,” said Matt James, program manager for SwRI's Marine and Offshore Systems.


There aren't a lot of ways of reaching a submarine when things go wrong. Only a handful of the submersible rescue vehicles exist in the world, according to SwRI.


What sets the U.S. and future Australian unit apart is the fact that the device they use to connect to a distressed sub can shift up to 60 degrees off angle, which is important when a sub is lying disabled.

Credit Office of the Navy
Office of the Navy
SwRI was responsible for testing the hull strength of the deep sea vessel Alvin.

“It does have an articulating skirt at the bottom that rotates up so it can latch on without basically tilting the submarine, the whole vehicle, over.”

James says the new submersible will weigh about 16 tons and fit a crew of 14, rescuing 12 people at a time and containing two crew.

Southwest Research has researched deep sea vehicles since at least the mid 1950's. An Office of the Navy guide to deep sea submersibles lists them as researchers on the Alumi-naut a salvage and exploration vessel. They were responsible for testing the hull strength on the Alvin built in the 1960s.

"These contracts don't come along every day," James said.

Most of the work his unit does now is testing pipes, tubes and other sea and deep-hole structures for oil and gas. 

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Matt James, SwRI program manager, points to different deep testing bays where tests can be done on materials up to 3000 PSI.

Their facilities stretch over multiple buildings and include many testing bays with long cylinders ranging from a few feet deep to more than 20 feet.

"People bring stuff to us, and we break it, or tell them when it will break," he said. 

In these deep cylinders they can test far beyond the 900 pounds per square inch that the Australian unit will be subjected to at 2100 feet.

The largest testing vessel at their San Antonio campus is too small for the Australian remotely operated rescue vehicle. It will have to be tested at sea.

Southwest Research’s two-year design contract began in January.

Paul Flahive can be reached via email Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org