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A diving bell is a rigid chamber used to transport divers from the surface to depth and back in open water, usually for the purpose of performing underwater work. The most common types are the open bottomed wet bell and the closed bell, which can maintain an internal pressure greater than the external ambient. Diving bells are usually suspended by a cable, and lifted and lowered by a winch from a surface support platform. Unlike a submersible, the diving bell is not designed to move under the control of its occupants, nor to operate independently of its launch and recovery system.
Exterior view of an open (wet) diving bell
|Uses||Transport of surface supplied and saturation divers from the surface to the underwater workplace and back.|
The wet bell is a structure with an airtight chamber which is open to the water at the bottom, that is lowered underwater to operate as a base or a means of transport for a small number of divers. Air is trapped inside the bell by pressure of the water at the interface. These were the first type of diving chamber, and are still in use in modified form.
The closed bell is a pressure vessel for human occupation, which may be used for bounce diving or saturation diving, with access to the water through a hatch at the bottom. The hatch is sealed before ascent to retain internal pressure. At the surface, this type of bell can lock on to a hyperbaric chamber where the divers live under saturation or are decompressed. The bell is mated with the chamber system via the bottom hatchway or a side hatchway, and the trunking in between is pressurized to enable the divers to transfer through to the chamber under pressure. In saturation diving the bell is merely the ride to and from the job, and the chamber system is the living quarters. If the dive is relatively short (a bounce dive), decompression can be done in the bell in exactly the same way it would be done in the chamber.
The diving bell is one of the earliest types of equipment for underwater work and exploration. Its use was first described by Aristotle in the 4th century BC: "...they enable the divers to respire equally well by letting down a cauldron, for this does not fill with water, but retains the air, for it is forced straight down into the water." According to Roger Bacon, Alexander the Great explored the Mediterranean on the authority of Ethicus the astronomer. In 1535, Guglielmo de Lorena created and used what is considered to be the first modern diving bell.
In 1658, Albrecht von Treileben was permitted to salvage the warship Vasa, which sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. Between 1663-1665 von Treileben's divers were successful in raising most of the cannons, working from a diving bell.
In late 1686, Sir William Phipps convinced investors to fund an expedition to what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic to find sunken treasure, despite the location of the shipwreck being based entirely on rumor and speculation. In January 1687, Phipps found the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción off the coast of Santo Domingo. Some sources say they used an inverted container for the salvage operation while others say the crew was assisted by Indian divers in the shallow waters. The operation lasted from February to April 1687 during which time they salvaged jewels, some gold and 30 tons of silver which, at the time, was worth over £200,000.
In 1691, Dr. Edmond Halley completed plans for a diving bell capable of remaining submerged for extended periods of time, and fitted with a window for the purpose of undersea exploration. In Halley's design, atmosphere is replenished by sending weighted barrels of air down from the surface.
In 1775, Charles Spalding, an Edinburgh confectioner, improved on Halley's design by adding a system of balance-weights to ease the raising and lowering of the bell, along with a series of ropes for signaling the surface crew. Spalding and his nephew, Ebenezer Watson, later suffocated off the coast of Dublin in 1783 doing salvage work in a diving bell of Spalding's design.
The bell is lowered into the water by cables from a crane, gantry or A-frame attached to a floating platform or shore structure. The bell is ballasted so as to remain upright in the water and to be negatively buoyant, so that it will sink even when full of air.
- Fresh gas is available for breathing by the occupants.
- Volume reduction of the air in an open bell due to increasing hydrostatic pressure as the bell is lowered is compensated. Adding pressurized gas ensures that the gas space within the bell remains at constant volume as the bell descends in the water. Otherwise the bell would partially fill with water as the gas was compressed.
The physics of the diving bell applies also to an underwater habitat equipped with a moon pool, which is like a diving bell enlarged to the size of a room or two, and with the water–air interface at the bottom confined to a section rather than forming the entire bottom of the structure.
A wet bell is a platform for lowering and lifting divers to and from the underwater workplace, which has an air filled space, open at the bottom, where the divers can stand or sit with their heads out of the water. The air space is at ambient pressure at all times, so there are no great pressure differences, and the greatest structural loads are usually self weight and the buoyancy of the air space. A fairly heavy ballast is often required to counteract the buoyancy of the airspace, and this is usually set low at the bottom of the bell, which helps with stability. The base of the bell is usually a grating or deck which the divers can stand on, and folding seats may be fitted for the divers' comfort during ascent, as in-water decompression may be long. Other equipment that is carried on the bell include cylinders with the emergency gas supply, and racks or boxes for tools and equipment to be used on the job. There may be a tackle for hoisting and supporting a disabled diver so that their head projects into the air space.
Type 1 wet bellEdit
The type 1 wet bell does not have an umbilical supplying the bell. Umbilicals supply the divers directly from the surface, similar to a diving stage. Divers deploying from a type 1 bell will exit on the opposite side to where the umbilicals enter the bell so that the umbilicals pass through the bell and the divers can find their way back to the bell at all times by following the umbilical. Bailout from a type 1 bell is done by exiting the bell on the side that the umbilicals enter the bell so they no longer pass through the bell, leaving the divers free to surface.
Type 2 wet bellEdit
A gas panel inside the bell is supplied by the bell umbilical and the emergency gas cylinders, and supplies the divers' umbilicals and sometimes BIBS sets. There will be racks to hang the divers' umbilicals, which for this application must not be buoyant. Abandonment of a type 2 wet bell requires the divers to manage their own umbilicals as they ascend along a remaining connection to the surface.
Operation of a wet bellEdit
The bell with divers on board is deployed from the working platform (usually a vessel) by a crane, davit or other mechanism with a man-rated winch. The bell is lowered into the water and to the working depth at a rate recommended by the decompression schedule, and which allows the divers to equalize comfortably. Wet bells with an air space will have the air space topped up as the bell descends and the air is compressed by increasing hydrostatic pressure. The air will also be refreshed as required to keep the carbon dioxide level acceptable to the occupants. The oxygen content is also replenished, but this is not the limiting factor, as the oxygen partial pressure will be higher than in surface air due to the depth.
When the bell is raised, the pressure will drop and excess air due to expansion will automatically spill under the edges. If the divers are breathing from the bell airspace at the time, it may need to be vented with additional air to maintain a low carbon dioxide level. The decrease in pressure is proportional to the depth as the airspace is at ambient pressure, and the ascent must be conducted according to the planned decompression schedule appropriate to the depth and duration of the diving operation.
A closed or dry bell is a pressure vessel for human occupation which is lowered into the sea to the workplace, equalised in pressure to the environment, and opened to allow the divers in and out. These functional requirements dictate the structure and arrangement. The internal pressure requires a strong structure, and a sphere or spherical ended cylinder is most efficient for this purpose. When the bell is underwater, it must be possible for the occupants to get in or out without flooding the entire interior. This requires a pressure hatch at the bottom. The requirement that the bell retains its internal pressure when the external pressure is lowered dictates that the hatch opens inward, so that internal pressure will hold it closed.
Locking onto a decompression chamber at the surface is possible either from the bottom or the side. Using the bell bottom hatch for this purpose has the advantage of only needing one hatch, and the disadvantage of having to lift the bell up and place it over a vertical entry to the chamber.
The bell bottom hatch must be wide enough for a large diver fully kitted with appropriate bailout cylinders, to get in and out without undue difficulty, and it can not be closed while the diver is outside as the umbilical is tended through the hatch by the bellman. It must also be possible for the bellman to lift the working diver in through the hatch if he is unconscious, and close the hatch after him, so that the bell can be raised and pressurised for the ascent. A lifting tackle is usually fitted inside the bell for this purpose, and the bell may be partially flooded to assist the procedure.
The internal space must be large enough for a fully kitted diver and bellman (the stand-by diver responsible for manning the bell while the working diver is locked out) to sit, and for their umbilicals to be stowed neatly on racks, and the hatch to be opened inwards while they are inside. Anything bigger will make the bell heavier than it really needs to be, so all equipment that does not need to be inside is mounted outside. This includes a framework to support the ancillary equipment and protect the bell from impact and snagging on obstacles, and the emergency gas and power supplies, which are usually racked around the framework. The EGS is connected via manifolds to the internal gas panel. The part of the framework that keeps the lower hatch off the bottom is called the bell stage. It may be removable. The bell umbilical is connected to the bell via through hull fittings (hull penetrations), which must withstand all operating pressures without leaking. The internal gas panel connects to the hull penetrations and the diver's umbilicals. The umbilicals will carry main breathing gas supply, a communications cable, a pneumofathometer hose, hot water supply for suit heating, power for helmet mounted lights, and possibly gas reclaim hose and video cable. The bell umbilical will usually also carry a power cable for internal and external bell lighting. Hydraulic power lines for tools do not have to pass into the interior of the bell as they will never be used there, and tools can also be stored outside. There may be an emergency through-water communications system with a battery power supply, and a location transponder working on the international standard 37.5 kHz. The bell may also have viewports and a medical lock.
A closed bell may be fitted with an umbilical cutter, a mechanism which allows the occupants to sever the bell umbilical from inside the sealed and pressurised bell in the event of an umbilical snag that prevents bell recovery. The device is typically hydraulically operated using a hand pump inside the bell, and can shear the umbilical at or just above the point where it is fastened to the top of the bell. Once cut, the bell can be raised and if the umbilical can then be recovered, it can be reconnected with only a short length lost. An external connection known as a hot stab unit which allows an emergency umbilical to be connected to maintain life support in the bell during a rescue operation may be fitted. 
The divers in the bell may also be monitored from the diving control point by closed circuit video, and the bell atmosphere can be monitored for volatile hydrocarbon contamination by a hyperbaric hydrocarbon analyser which can be linked to a topside repeater and set to give an alarm if the hydrocarbon levels exceed 10% of the anaesthetic level.
The bell may be fitted with an external emergency battery power pack, carbon dioxide scrubber for the internal atmosphere, and air conditioner for temperature control. Power supply is typically 12 or 24V DC.
British mini-bell systemEdit
A variant of this system used in the North Sea oilfields between early 1986 and the early 90s was the Oceantech Minibell system, which was used for bell-bounce dives, and was operated as an open bell for the descent, and as a closed bell for the ascent. The divers would climb into the bell after stowing their umbilicals on outside racks, remove their helmets for outside storage, seal the bell, and return to the surface, venting to the depth of the first decompression stop. The bell would then be locked onto a deck decompression chamber, the divers transferred under pressure to complete decompression in the chamber, and the bell would be available for use for another dive.
Deployment of a modern diving bellEdit
Diving bells are deployed over the side of the vessel or platform using a gantry or A-frame from which the clump weight and the bell are suspended. On dive support vessels with in-built saturation systems the bell may be deployed through a moon pool. The bell handling system is also known as the launch and recovery system (LARS).
The bell umbilical supplies gas to the bell gas panel, and is separate from the divers' umbilicals, which are connected to the gas panel on the inside of the bell. The bell umbilical is deployed from a large drum or umbilical basket and care is taken to keep the tension in the umbilical low but sufficient to remain near vertical in use and to roll up neatly during recovery, as this reduces the risk of the umbilical snagging on underwater obstructions.
Wet bell handling differs from closed bell handling in that there is no requirement to transfer the bell to and from the chamber system to make a pressure-tight connection, and that a wet bell will be required to maintain a finely controlled speed of descent and ascent and remain at a fixed depth within fairly close tolerances for the occupants to decompress at a specific ambient pressure, whereas a closed bell can be removed from the water without delay and the speed of ascent and descent is not critical.
A bell diving team will usually include two divers in the bell, designated the working diver and bellman, though they may alternate these roles during the dive. The bellman is a stand-by diver and umbilical tender from the bell to the working diver, the operator of the on-board gas distribution panel, and has an umbilical about 2 m longer than the working diver to ensure that the working diver can be reached in an emergency. This can be adjusted by tying off the umbilicals inside the bell to limit deployment length, which must often be done in any case, to prevent the divers from approaching known hazards in the water. Depending on circumstances, there may also be a surface stand-by diver, with attendant in case there is an emergency where the surface diver could assist. The team be under the direct control of the diving supervisor and will also include a winch operator, and may include a dedicated surface gas panel operator.
Deployment usually starts by lowering the clump weight, which is a large ballast weight suspended from a cable which runs down one side from the gantry, through a set of sheaves on the weight, and up the other side back to the gantry, where it is fastened. The weight hangs freely between the two parts of the cable, and due to its weight, hangs horizontally and keeps the cable under tension. The bell hangs between the parts of the cable, and has a fairlead on each side which slides along the cable as it is lowered or lifted. Deployment of the bell is by a cable attached to the top. As the bell is lowered, the fairleads prevent it from rotating on the deployment cable, which would put twist into the umbilical and risk loops or snagging. The clump weight cables therefore act as guidelines or rails along which the bell is lowered to the workplace, and raised back to the platform. If the lifting winch or cable fails, and the bell ballast is released, a positively buoyant bell can float up and the cables will guide it to the surface to a position where it can be recovered relatively easily. The clump weight cable can also be used as an emergency recovery system, in which case both bell and weight are lifted together. An alternative system for preventing rotation on the lifting cable is the use of a cross-haul system, which may also be used as a means of adjusting the lateral position of the bell at working depth, and as an emergency recovery system.
A closed bell handling system is used to move the bell from the position where it is locked on to the chamber system into the water, lower it to the working depth and hold it in position without excessive movement, and recover it to the chamber system. The system used to transfer the bell on deck may be a deck trolley system, an overhead gantry or a swinging A-frame. The system must constrain movement of the supported bell sufficiently to allow accurate location on the chamber trunking even in bad weather. A bell cursor may be used to control movement through and above the splash zone, and heave compensation gear may be used to limit vertical movement when in the water and clear of the cursor, particularly at working depth when the diver may be locked out and the bell is open to ambient pressure.
A bell cursor is a device used to guide and control the motion of the bell through the air and the splash zone near the surface, where waves can move the bell significantly. It can either be a passive system which relies on additional ballast weight or an active system which uses a controlled drive system to provide vertical motion. The cursor has a cradle which locks onto the bell and which moves vertically on rails to constrain lateral movement. The bell is released and locked onto the cursor in the relatively still water below the splash zone.
Heave compensation equipment is used to stabilise the depth of the bell by counteracting vertical movement of the handling system caused by movements of the platform, and usually also maintains correct tension on the guide wires. It is not usually essential, depending on the stability of the platform.
Cross-hauling systems are used to move the bell laterally from a point directly below the LARS, and may also be used to limit rotation and as an emergency recovery system.
Use with hyperbaric chambersEdit
Commercial diving contractors generally use a closed bell in conjunction with a surface hyperbaric chamber, These have safety and ergonomic advantages and allow decompression to be carried out after the bell has been raised to the surface and back on board the diving support vessel. Closed bells are often used in saturation diving and undersea rescue operations. The diving bell would be connected via the mating flange of an airlock to the deck decompression chamber or saturation system for transfer under pressure of the occupants.
Air-lock diving bellsEdit
The air lock diving-bell plant was a purpose-built barge for the laying, examination and repair of moorings for battleships at Gibraltar harbour. Designed by Siebe Gorman of Lambeth and Forrestt & Co. Ltd of Wivenhoe in Essex, who built and supplied it in 1902 to the British Admiralty.
The vessel came about from the specific conditions at Gibraltar. The heavy harbour moorings have three chains extending out radially along the seabed from a central ring, each terminating in a large anchor. Most harbours have a soft seabed, and it is usual to lay down moorings by settling anchors in the mud, clay or sand but this could not be done in Gibraltar harbour, where the seabed is hard rock.
In operation the barge would be towed over the work site, moored in place with anchors, and the bell would be lowered vertically to the bottom. and the water displaced by pumping. The work teams entered the bell through an airlock in the central access shaft. Working in ordinary clothes they could dig out anchorings for the moorings.
The German service barge Carl Straat is similar in concept, but the bell is lowered by swinging the access tube. Carl Straat was built in 1963 for the Waterways and Shipping Directorate West in Münster. The 6 m x 4 m x 2,5 m bell is accessible through a 2 m diameter tube and an airlock. A pantograph system keeps the bell and internal stairs level at all depths. Maximum working depth is 10 m. The vessel is used on those inland waterways which have locks large enough to acommodate its 52 m length over all, 11.8 m beam and1.6 m draft.
Diving bells have been used for submarine rescue. The closed dry bell is designed to seal against the deck of the submarine above an escape hatch. Water in the space between the bell and the submarine is pumped out and the hatches can be opened to allow occupants to leave the submarine and enter the bell. The hatches are then closed, the bell skirt flooded to release it from the submarine, and the bell with its load of survivors is hoisted back to the surface, where the survivors exit and the bell may return for the next group. The internal pressure in the bell is usually kept at atmospheric pressure to minimise run time by eliminating the need for decompression, so the seal between the bell skirt and the submarine deck is critical to the safety of the operation. This seal is provided by using a flexible sealing material, usually a type of rubber, which is pressed firmly against the smooth hatch surround by the pressure differential when the skirt is pumped out.
Divers qualified to work from bells are trained in the skills and procedures relevant to the type of bell they will be expected to work from. Open bells are generally used for surface oriented surface-supplied deep air diving, and closed bells are used for saturation diving and surface oriented mixed gas diving. These skills include the standard procedures for the deployment of the working diver from the bell, the tending of the working diver from the bell by the bellman, and the emergency and rescue procedures for both working diver and bellman. There is considerable similarity and significant differences in these procedures between open and closed bell diving.
As noted above, further extension of the wet bell concept is the moon-pool-equipped underwater habitat, where divers may spend long periods in dry comfort while acclimated to the increased pressure experienced underwater. By not needing to return to the surface between excursions into the water, they can reduce the necessity for decompression (gradual reduction of pressure), after each excursion, required to avoid problems with nitrogen bubbles releasing from the bloodstream (the bends, also known as caisson disease). Such problems can occur at pressures greater than 1.6 standard atmospheres (160 kPa), corresponding to a depth of 6 metres (20 ft) of water. Divers in an ambient pressure habitat will require decompression when they return to the surface. This is a form of saturation diving.
Since the spider must breathe air, it constructs from silk a habitat like an open diving bell which it attaches to an underwater plant. The spider collects air in a thin layer around its body, trapped by dense hairs on its abdomen and legs. It transports this air to its diving bell to replenish the air supply in the bell. This allows the spider to remain in the bell for long periods, where it waits for its prey.
- Bathysphere – Unpowered spherical deep-sea observation submersible lowered on a cable
- Benthoscope – Unpowered spherical deep-sea observation submersible lowered on a cable
- Caisson (engineering) – Rigid structure to provide workers with a dry working environment below water level
- Diving chamber – Hyperbaric pressure vessel for human occupation used in diving operations
- Moon pool – An opening in the base of a hull, platform, or chamber giving access to the water below
- Timeline of diving technology – A chronological list of notable events in the history of underwater diving
- Wet submarine – Ambient pressure diver propulsion vehicle
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An air-compression vessel, used for laying moorings for battleships, fitted with a diving-bell, the entrance to which is down the big funnel amidships. The headline painting here, appeared on the front cover of the Illustrated London News 25 March 1906
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