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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012
Small firms build deep-sea explorer
A group of small factories in Tokyo is developing a deep-sea survey device to film creatures and collect samples from the seafloor at depths of 8,000 meters in the Japan Trench.
Yukio Sugino, president of a rubber maker in Katsushika Ward, took the initiative to start the project amid a string of bankruptcies among his fellow small family-run businesses following the financial crisis that started in 2008.
"I wanted to survey untapped resources on the deep-sea floor," Sugino recalled, saying he was prompted by the successful launch into space of a small satellite, the Maido No. 1, developed by a variety of small factories in the city of Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, in 2009.
"I felt factories in Tokyo could achieve something similar."
Sugino initially wanted to develop a vehicle capable of moving freely on the deep-sea bed, and 16 companies showed interest in the plan when he solicited investment.
But when the estimated development costs of such a vehicle turned out to be ¥300 million, only one company other than his was willing to participate.
A researcher at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, which developed the Shinkai 6500 manned submersible capable of diving down to 6,500 meters, advised Sugino that development costs could be substantially reduced by the use of a form of glass ball currently used for buoys at sea.
Sugino decided to put a video camera, LED lighting equipment and other devices into a glass ball that can withstand deep-sea pressures. After filming creatures and collecting samples from the deep-sea bed, the ball will return to the surface after jettisoning its weight, according to the revised plan.
The less ambitious plan carried a development price tag of only ¥20 million.
With two more companies agreeing to share the costs, a consortium of four firms launched the project, with each working on separate areas.
These include developing parts to collect seabed samples, a communications system, a video camera system and lighting equipment.
Shibaura Institute of Technology and Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology are also involved in the Edokko No. 1 project. Edokko means "child of Edo," the former name of Tokyo.
A metal-processing company in Sumida Ward is developing the communications system to locate the glass ball via GPS once it returns to the surface.
"The survey will be meaningless unless the ball is recovered," Keiichi Hamano, president of the company, said. In addition, the project "must contribute to our business," although it is not directly related to metal-processing work, he said.
The glass ball will be designed to be small enough for a person to hold with two hands.
The group plans to begin exploration in the Japan Trench off the Boso Peninsula of Chiba Prefecture next year following experiments on submerging objects due to start soon. If the exploration proves successful, the four companies plan to produce such balls for sale to research institutes and businesses interested in seafloor research.
Small factories will "decay if they just complain about slumps in business and avoid taking on challenges," Sugino said. "We want to encourage other small factories by showing we can produce results by working together no matter how small we are."