Member Profile: Scott Olson

April 15, 2020

Past President of the Manned Underwater Vehicles Committee

– I was born in Minnesota in 1964 (the same place and date as the submersible Alvin). When I was sixteen, we moved from Minnesota to Honduras, where I graduated from high school.  Not wanting to move back to the cold country I went to college at Florida Institute of Technology in Jensen Beach, Florida where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Oceanographic Technology in 1986.  For my senior project I was the coordinator of a group of students that built a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).

Photo courtesy of Scott Olson

While at FIT I worked at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) in Fort Pierce, Florida for two summers as an intern. It was then that I realized that my lifelong goal of becoming a submersible pilot might actually be feasible. My dream had begun by watching Jacques Cousteau as a child and then getting Scuba certified in Minnesota when I was 14.

After graduating from FIT my first job was in the Cayman Islands working for a tourist submersible operator. After further work in Vancouver, Canada for a submersible manufacturer, I returned to HBOI and worked as an Electronics Technician, Submersible/ROV pilot and finally as a Systems Engineer in the Marine Operations department. It was during this 15-year period at HBOI that I was nominated and selected to be the Chairman of what was then called the MTS Manned Submersibles Committee. I was nominated by Dr. Andrew Clark, who was then the President of MTS and the head of the Engineering Department at HBOI.

During the two years that I was chairman of the MTS committee, I hosted meetings at the Underwater Intervention convention and organized the reproduction and distribution of the Safety Guidelines for Submersible Operations that had been published previously by MTS. I also proposed and facilitated the changing of the name of the committee by popular vote to its current name, the Manned Underwater Vehicles Committee (MUVC).

Over the last 35 years, I have met and worked with many influential people in the underwater technology industry including Emory Kristof, Eugenie Clark, Bob Ballard, Frank Busby, Graham Hawkes, Sylvia Earle, James Cameron, Phil Nuytten, Mike DeGruy, and Jill Zande. However, the many people that actually influenced my career by acting as mentors were lesser well-known people including Jeff Berkley at Research Submersibles Ltd; Chris Tietze, Bob Tusting, Jerry Neely, and Captain Jim Wilkins at NAVSEA. They were all forward thinking and enthusiastic mentors with impeccable professional integrity. I also have to mention some of the scientists that I worked with while at sea with HBOI, people like Edie Widder, Chuck Fisher and Craig Young, all of whom shared their passion for furthering our understanding of the oceans.

In regard to manned submersible technology, I have maintained for years that there are three key areas that need to be improved to make a fundamental step-change in performance: power storage, materials, and propulsion. The industry is on the verge of addressing the first one by adopting lithium storage batteries, although for safety reasons they are still not widely used. Advancements in materials will allow for lighter systems which will reduce the costs of manufacturing and operations. And, finally. the potential for surveying larger areas of the ocean will be facilitated by the development of more efficient propulsion systems, akin to the aeronautical industry moving from propellers to jet engines.

The advancements in augmented reality as it is used in the real-time operation of unmanned underwater vehicles is very exciting and has multi-faceted implications. A structured environment (like a subsea production oil field in the Gulf of Mexico) can be created in a 3D multi-physical, simulated domain where the location and configuration of the items on the bottom are accurately represented.  Meanwhile a model of the vehicle is placed into the domain with its location and attitude accurately represented by a link to the actual work vehicle in real-time via an acoustic tracking system. The vehicle operator can now execute real-time work tasks with feedback only from the simulated environment. The operator can also shift his prospective from the first person (vehicle) point of view to look behind or around objects at any time. Without a need for an imaging system a large bandwidth communication link is no longer necessary.  With high-capacity batteries on board the vehicle that are charged in-situ and no video connection a tether and thus a support ship are no longer required.

My advice for people interested in this career field are fourfold:

  1. Be hands-on, be willing to get dirty and wet, learn all you can about the operational challenges of the sea
  2. Get a solid foundation (usually a bachelor’s degree) in the classic disciplines such as mechanical or electrical engineering and specialize (usually with an advanced degree) in the area in which you are most interested
  3. Be prepared to travel extensively and to relocate often
  4. Collaborate with overseas colleagues as much as possible.  Many countries, especially Canada, China and Europe, are advancing Marine Technologies faster than the U.S.

Looking to the future of MTS, I feel that one of the primary goals the society should concentrate on is the cataloging and dissemination of information from research and development from the past. From the inception of an idea, to the development and “fielding” of the technology across the “valley of death,” there are many pitfalls that have been successfully overcome over the years. Without a record of this historical lineage I’m afraid that many of these pitfalls will be re-encountered by future generations. A searchable online repository of the thousands of white papers that have been produced over the years would be very useful to future development efforts. If MTS promotes itself as a recipient and custodian of marine technology research papers then perhaps more of it could be saved and shared with future generations. 

  • Photo courtesy of Scott Olson
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