Excerpt from Sea Technology Interview with Dr. Jim Cairns, Inventor of the First Fluid-Filled Wet-Mate U/W Connector
Alternate energy sources such as floating and fixed wind farms and ocean current and wave energy generators are proliferating, as are the devices to install and service them. Inspection and maintenance of the new submerged systems, as well as monitoring their security, all require flexible, easily deployed work vehicles such as drones. Lightweight, inexpensive cable and connector hardware for both electrical and optical systems will be needed. Not all have to be connected and disconnected subsea or in splash zones, but many do. Putting a 3-kilogram, $100,000 wet-mateable optical connector on a small drone makes no sense. New connector options are required.
Optical contacts must be immaculate at the moment of engagement in order to function. That is often daunting in a dry laboratory, and a much greater challenge in field use. That’s one of the challenges we’ve addressed at my new company, Pontus. Pontus optical and hybrid electro-optical connectors can be connected and disconnected repeatedly subsea or nearly anywhere else without cleaning. They are small, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. They should address many of the connector industry’s growing needs.
I’ve been working with a company I started, Pontus Subsea Connectors, to address the growing need for smaller, less expensive and more versatile harsh-environment connectors. Commercially available fluid-filled connectors and ancillary components have primarily been developed for rugged subsea use. Highest quality electrical connectors and rolling-seal optical connectors are superbly reliable. They’ve been designed to withstand extremely rough handling and up to 30-year immersion at full ocean depths. But those currently on the market cannot be downsized appreciably due to several factors, including their complex chamber-sealing mechanisms.
The most crucial element of fluid-filled connectors is the penetrable end-seal that allows a plug pin to sealably enter and subsequently be withdrawn from a fluid chamber housing a receptacle socket.
Pontus has developed a remarkable new end-seal that does away with the springs, pistons, actuator rods and other mechanisms used to operate the end-seals in existing fluid-filled connectors. The new seal consists simply of an elastomeric end-wall with a crescent-shaped axial perforation. The uncut portion of the crescentic cut serves as a substantial elastic force to return the seal to its unperforated, sealed position when the pin is withdrawn. It’s hard to imagine anything simpler.
The new sealing technique allows fluid-filled connectors to be much smaller, lighter, with reduced part count, and less expensive than current products. It should open up new markets for use with modern, lightweight systems.
Pontus connectors with the new one-piece end-seals can be connected and disconnected in almost any environment without further cleaning. Shipboard or terrestrial battle zones come to mind, as well as commercial outdoor and urban subterranean fiber-optic networks.
Before the availability of oil-filled connectors, the intervention of complex subsea systems was practically limited to diver zones. Now, nearly 60 years later, modularized assemblies can be constructed and repaired worldwide at full ocean depths. The ability to operate throughout the oceans has led to rapid development of manned and autonomous underwater work vehicles. As that technology continues to grow, so will the opportunities to build things on the seafloor. We can begin to do ‘normal’ sorts of work on much of our planet’s surface that heretofore has been inaccessible.
That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the underwater connector industry. Current high-reliability, fluid-filled products for heavy-duty use are not suitable for many of the new applications. Connector manufacturers I’ve talked to recently say they are struggling to fulfill customer orders for their existing products and don’t have the bandwidth in their organizations to take on new development projects. They’re not taking up the challenge.
Where’s the new technology coming from? The manufacturer who is able to introduce it should already have a commanding industry position lasting for decades.