Professor completes first underwater camping trip at Biosphere 2

A scuba diver services an underwater research robot with an underwater camping tent in the background, located at the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2.

Scientific diver Brandon Carr swims beside the underwater robot used to collect samples in the Biosphere 2 ocean during a May experiment to test the the Ocean Space Habitat, seen behind Carr. University of Arizona professor Winslow Burleson invented the inflatable tent-style habitat alongside professional diver Mike Lombardi. Burleson spent a night in the tent and processed samples collected by the robot.

Courtesy of Jona Silverstein

University of Arizona School of Information professor Winslow Burleson started his summer with a camping trip. While some campers seek out cooler weather and scenic views, Burleson set his sights 21 feet underwater.

Loaded with scuba gear and research equipment, Burleson spent a night underwater in the ocean biome at the university's Biosphere 2. His living quarters for the night: the Ocean Space Habitat – a portable, inflatable underwater tent he invented with Rhode Island-based professional diver Mike Lombardi.

More than a unique camping excursion, the operation was an opportunity to test whether the tent could support divers undertaking multi-day research missions. The tent, which is anchored to the sea floor, offers a relatively dry and protected space where divers can remove their equipment, relax or perform research-related tasks. The habitat also provides divers with a space to endure lengthy decompression from the effects of water pressure during deep scientific dives or to administer medical care for decompression sickness.

University of Arizona professor Winslow Burleson sleeping inside the Ocean Space Habitat in the Biosphere 2 ocean.

University of Arizona professor Winslow Burleson sleeps inside the Ocean Space Habitat in the Biosphere 2 ocean.

Lombardi Undersea LLC

The Ocean Space Habitat was featured on the Discovery Channel during 2021 Shark Week, when two divers used the underwater tent to observe hammerhead sharks throughout a nighttime to daylight transition.

Underwater habitation and related research has been a goal in the scientific community for over half a century, Lombardi said, but it is met with complex challenges, including the limitations of human physiology and the operational expense. Offshore oil and gas industries often rely on mobile saturation diving, a type of diving that allows humans to live under pressure for weeks or longer aboard a ship and transition to the seafloor in a pressurized chamber known as a diving bell. Marine scientists have used fixed, permanent habitats that rest on the seafloor at one location.

"Both rely on high operational costs and heavy infrastructure," said Lombardi. "In the last 20 years, techniques in technical diving, typically for sport, have made dive excursions of more than five hours using only personal life support fairly routine. We've leveraged technology and techniques from that sector to afford a new lightweight mode of intervention akin to camping, where we've demonstrated these five hours can be extended to a day or more without the massive infrastructure or costs of the current paradigm."

During his overnight trip at Biosphere 2 in May, Burleson worked with an underwater robot to collect dozens of marine organism tissue samples from the ocean biome and processed them while in the underwater tent for Northeastern University's Ocean Genome Legacy project. The team also tested a special helmet that allows a diver to host a presentation from underwater.

Burleson and Lombardi are both members of the UArizona Dive Control Board, which works alongside the university's Research Laboratory and Safety Services to ensure all scientific dives conducted by the university follow safe diving practices and comply with federal scientific diving regulations.

Burleson, who is also a member of the university's BIO5 Institute, talked with University of Arizona News about the Ocean Space Habitat and the underwater camping experience.

Q: What makes the Ocean Space Habitat an important development in diving science technology?

A: The portability of the Ocean Space Habitat allows you to bring this kind of experience to 95% of places in the world, as opposed to needing the large infrastructure of a ship for saturation diving or an even more inaccessible fixed scientific station. We can put most of our gear into small packages or in checked luggage, so there is a potential to take extended diving anywhere in the world.

Q: How could the tent impact the diving experience?

A: If you want to do archaeology or other investigations in the range of 150 to 200 feet underwater with conventional diving methods, you will get only about half an hour, once a day. With our technologies, you could do a two-hour dive, stay in the tent at 20 feet for four to six hours, then do another two-hour dive at depth, return to the tent and decompress overnight.

When you are diving, you are taking on gasses in your blood and tissues, which is why when you go to deeper depths for longer times you can't come all the way back up to the surface. But you can come up to the tent and stay there for four to six hours, go back down for two more hours the same day, spend the night in the tent, and come up in the 20-to-24-hour timeframe from when you entered the water.

Now, in one 24-hour time period or less, you've spent four hours underwater versus half an hour. You've done a week's worth of on-site time, an order of magnitude more than you would have been able to do with conventional technology.

The Ocean Space Habitat deployed within the ocean environment located in Biosphere 2.

The Ocean Space Habitat deployed within the ocean environment located in Biosphere 2. The habitat is anchored to the sea floor.

Lombardi Undersea LLC

Q: How could an extended dive in the Ocean Space Habitat contribute to marine science research?

A: You don't know what the ecology of an environment is doing unless you live in it and become part of it, and the tent will eventually give us a chance to do that. … Being in these other worlds to a much greater extent than we have been able is an important part of us having the capacity to solve our global challenges, to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and hopefully succeed in some of the pressing climate and environmental challenges that we face.

Q: What is the preparation process like for an underwater camping trip?

A: There is a lot of preparation, including several days of getting the tent prepared and fitted and experimenting with placements for sitting, sleeping and different arrangements. Within the tent is also a life support system and scrubbing technology that includes a fan, oxygen monitors and additional oxygen that can be added.  

In this case, we had me, who was the underwater camper; two support divers, who were trading off and monitoring my sleeping; and life support from within the tent. We also had topside communication and oversight to help address any issues that might occur.

Q: What was that camping experience like?

A: It was somewhere in between a camping trip and an expedition or a mission. From a more personal, physical experience, once you lie down and get comfortable, it's kind of like sleeping on a Therm-a-Rest (sleeping pad). You have about the same amount of space, you may or may not have a pillow that is comfortable, you may use a shirt or gear that you brought with you as a pillow. I brought food because I was there from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. I had some food and water before the expedition and brought individual food and water like you would on a camping trip – and then it was just deciding when to eat dinner and when to go for a swim before going to sleep. That was part of the fun of the excursion.

Q: The camping trip also included a fair amount of research. What was it like working underwater with the robot and processing samples in the tent?

A: We partnered with Northeastern University's Ocean Genome Legacy Center, which archives genomic libraries, and collected over 40 samples of species in the Biosphere 2 ocean – worms, algae, urchins, and various encrusting organisms – that were preserved underwater in the ocean habitat. … This is important for both environmental assessment, health and ecological purposes but also potentially for bioprospecting pharmaceuticals and medicines that could be useful in their own right. Processing specimens in the habitat, within minutes of collecting, may prove to provide higher quality tissue and genetic information for research, as opposed to what can be lengthy delays in processing when divers have to decompress and then transit back to a laboratory.

The underwater robot can work side-by-side with the divers, has a camera, can be connected to the internet and can be controlled remotely. The robot can also change depth without physiological consequence, so we were developing a scenario that is analogous to deeper collections. We're only at 21 feet at Biosphere 2, but we ran the work as if we were working deeper than the maximum 100-foot depths routinely visited by divers, where there is an increasing appreciation for rich biological activity that has previously been under-investigated. Having the robot next to the diver at-depth, and having the robot be able to go back and forth between the habitat and the divers can enhance the work and activities we are able to do.

Q: Why is Biosphere 2 and its ocean biome a good place to conduct this kind of research?

A: Biosphere 2 houses the University of Arizona's closest saltwater ocean. It's a very safe and protected environment, unlike a more natural ocean where weather and other factors can affect your diving experience.

From an ecological perspective, the sampling work is important for the Biosphere 2 ocean because we have not done that kind of ecological sampling for a while – and it's important to understand the evolution of that ocean as a uniquely isolated mesocosm.

Biosphere 2 has a long history and ongoing trajectory in serving as a model for how closed systems function, both ecologically and also how humans factor into their exploration and impacts. The diving operations we've been conducting with Ocean Space Habitat with the ocean have striking operational similarities to what it might be like to sample biologics on another planet someday – the integration of advanced life support, with mission-oriented operations and responsible scientific intervention are all areas needing to be advanced as we look to both ocean and space exploration in the future.

Q: What do you hope the future holds for Ocean Space Habitat?

A: We want to eventually create a digital twin of the underwater world so that without going on the camping trip you could walk into a museum or classroom or put on a headset and have the underwater experience alongside the aquanauts. There are important intersections of science outreach and education with this type of work that can really inspire the next generation. We want people to be able to fully appreciate the magnificence of the underwater experience.

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