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Segway builders develop speedy swim fins

DARPA, Navy SEALs team with dorkmobile firm on super-Flippers

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The company which gave the world the Segway has developed a revolutionary new set of swim fins, twice as efficient as the ones worn by divers today.

DEKA Research, previously most famous for its electric dorkmobile, has previously bid for Pentagon cash with its remarkable man-launching pneumatic cannon, intended to hurl soldiers onto roofs without the use of vulnerable hovering helicopters. Unsurprisingly, the grunt-gun was developed under the auspices of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, eccentric powerhouse of Pentagon boffinry.

DARPA and DEKA have also collaborated on a more reasonable scheme for underwater rather than airborne use. According to this US government document (vast pdf; page 133), DEKA was awarded $2,809,407 in 2005 to develop "a novel concept for combat swimmers".

The idea was to "increase the overall swimming efficiency such that a given combat swimmer can demonstrate a sustainable speed of 50 per cent higher than the typical sustainable speed achieved using standard-issue swim fins, and to reduce by a factor of two the metabolic energy required to maintain a sustained speed of one knot."

According to news from the DARPAtech conference underway this week in California, DEKA has actually done better than this. Bill Sweetman, editor in chief of Defense Technology International, reports that the DARPA/DEKA Powerswim effort has borne fruit impressively.

Apparently, US Navy SEALs with the Powerswim equipment attached to their legs in lieu of regular swim fins can sustain speeds of better than two knots, which should have the world's underwater warriors beating a path to DEKA's door. Back when your correspondent was serving with the Royal Navy's diving branch, a single knot was seen as the most that could be expected over any long period.

Sweetman says some SEALs apparently don't like the new gear, feeling that it makes life too easy. "SEALs are like Catholic school - if it doesn't hurt it's not good for you," he was told. That certainly rings true; your correspondent once complained about an easily-fixed kit problem as a trainee, and was told: "If we made it easy, everybody would be doing it."

Elite-forces masochism, though, should collapse fast at the prospect of sustainable two knot swimming without vehicles. Furthermore, if the claims are accurate, and the gear is as simple to make as it looks, this will be another piece of DARPA kit which gets wide adoption in the civilian world as well as among the military - like the internet or night-vision goggles. Sports divers and swimmers are sure to be clamouring for Powerswim rigs soon along with the world's military divers and special forces.

Interestingly, it seems the DEKA/DARPA team developed Powerswim by studying the swim techniques of dolphins, among other creatures. It used to be a 30 pressups offence to refer to the use of "flippers" rather than fins in the RN diving branch, but it seems that the derivation of the new kit might make that rule obsolete. ®

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