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Using Autodesk software, San Anselmo engineer creates deep-water planes

[caption id="attachment_34859" align="alignright" width="396" caption="The Deepflight Super Falcon "][/caption]

MARIN COUNTY – As billionaire adventurers Richard Branson and Tom Perkins prepare to break records in deep sea exploration, their ventures have already illuminated what can happen when a brilliant engineer has the right set of tools.

The improbable journeys announced last month – one to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and the other to “fly with the big animals in every ocean of the world” – will be made in underwater airplanes designed by San Anselmo engineer Graham Hawkes with the help of Autodesk’s computer aided design software.

“You can’t engineer vehicles like this with paper and pencil,” said Hawkes Ocean Technologies partner Karen Hawkes of the manned submersibles, incredibly lightweight yet able to withstand the huge pressures of the deep sea.

The Deepflight Challenger and Deepflight Super Falcon, expected to usher in a new era in oceanography, are the latest of a series of increasingly energy-efficient underwater vehicles developed since the mid-1990s by Mr. Hawkes using the first iteration of Autodesk’s Inventor.

“We developed and honed Inventor with the help of users like Graham,” said Rob Cohee, Autodesk’s Manufacturing Evangelist – his official title.

Autodesk Inventor software made it possible to form a digital prototype and then move that prototype and its accompanying data through the early stages of design and, if it proved viable, all the way to production and market.

As the tool’s capability expanded from 2D to 3D visualization, the early phases of design became even more streamlined, requiring fewer engineers with specialized knowledge to collaborate.

“Our earliest prototypes for Challenger and Falcon required 14 to 16 people,” said Ms. Hawkes. “Now the same process requires only three engineers and one technician.”

One of those engineers is Adam Wright, who joined Hawkes Ocean Technology as an intern from Sir Frances Drake High School and remained through the engineering program at Berkeley.

Now principal mechanical engineer for Hawkes Remotes, Mr. Wright can’t imagine designing a vehicle so complex without CAD modeling software.

“I wouldn’t know where to start. It would be like trying to write notes without a pen and paper,” he said.

The difference between drawing prototypes and using software to model them is simple, he said.

“One is a representation of a machine, the other is the actual machine, being built inside the computer.”

3D modeling allows him to judge yaw, pitch and roll of the vehicle. To gauge how it will withstand water forces he plugs in pressure and fluidic analyzing software.

“Once the DNA of the project is perfected on the computer you put it in the hands of the fabricator,” he said.

According to Mr. Cohee, engineers like Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Wright can’t afford to spend countless hours and dollars in early stage prototyping, and using a team of engineers dilutes the product from the inventor’s vision.

“Autodesk aims to bring an inventor’s ideas to the factory floor as quickly as possible.”

Or to the ocean floor, in the case of Mr. Branson’s Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project, intended to take the Hawkes lightweight submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet beneath the surface. Mr. Perkins, a Tiburon venture capitalist, will navigate world’s oceans on a several-year expedition to study large mammals.

“Tom could be the first human being to fly with the large ocean animals and understand what it is like to access the full three dimensions of our ocean space,” said Mr. Hawkes.

The Hawkes’ own team intends to use the Super Falcon to scientifically survey below diver depth in the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan.

Virgin Oceanic wants to set a depth record with the Challenger, but the Hawkes are also interested in establishing that their vehicles can safely explore any depth, and take people along to see a wondrous part of the earth.

“While we initially began the Deepflight Project with the goal of getting one person to 36,000 feet, now our goal is to get 36,000 people at least down in the ocean,” said Mr. Hawkes.