Over a 40+ year career, I can say that I have placed television cameras in some pretty strange places. These cameras have performed some very odd jobs too. Yes, there have been thousands and thousands of cameras placed for traffic, security, and surveillance, but for the most part, these installations were fairly mundane projects to deliver endless images of boring subjects.
One project that stands out was a call for help from a Swedish company called, ASEA (now ABB) in 1984. It was for a specialized marine operation project underway in the waters between the cities of Vancouver on the mainland and Victoria on the island in beautiful British Columbia. It was late May when the call came in.
Their project was to find trenches, crevices, and troughs in the sea floor to run a high voltage direct current (HVDC) cable inside. This HVDC cable had been installed 6-7 years before, but many seagoing vessels kept snagging the cable with their anchors and dragged it around and damaging it. This resulted in power outages.
ASEA was using one of the many PISCES submarines mated with a research vessel to explore the floor of the Straits of Georgia. They hoped to use a video camera to record images of the trenches to have the geotechnical, civil, marine, and power engineers on the ship’s deck and back in their respective offices assess the suitability of the various locations to protect the HVDC cable.
The PISCES submersibles are a three person submarine, with barely enough room inside the seven foot sphere for just a pilot and two observers. PISCES VII was used for this mission. The vessel was the PANDORA IV deep sea dive recovery vessel.
Our job was to help them convert, mount, and bring to full operational levels the video camera mounted on an articulated arm outside the submarine. This was the first time for this sort of request.
So, I flew to British Columbia with an expert video technician, Arnold van der Veen, to see what we could do for them. We met with the ASEA project team at the PANDORA IV research dive ship, which was docked in Port Sydney Marina, across the Patricia Bay Highway, from Victoria International Airport.
They wanted us to take a brand new, broadcast-grade video camera, strip off the housing, dissemble it into pieces, so it could then be reassembled longitudinally inside an elongated fabricated cylinder that would be installed on the exterior of the sub. Normally, these cameras were shoulder-mounted, news-gathering cameras, so they were large, in both length and height. They were not exactly conducive to undersea exploration work. This was a pure custom job.
The camera selected was the innovative RCA CCD-1, the first of a kind, chip sensor camera, instead of the traditional tube sensor cameras common until this charged-coupled device (CCD) camera was announced at NAB 1983. In its day, this camera was groundbreaking. So, the camera was mostly a prototype, or early production model at best. RCA was not overly forthcoming with detailed drawings, nor other needed technical information for the job as they wanted to guard their innovative technology. This forced Arnold to largely work in the dark technically. He relied on his many years of experience and expertise earned at technical college, his years at the CBC, and later at Adcom, our employer in those days.
Precision Camera’s Gerd Kurz joined the team. Gerd was a straightforward man who did not suffer foolish people very well. He was also a genius master craftsman in my opinion and we had many successful collaboration projects behind us by this time. Gerd fabricated the cylinder in his shop in Toronto and include military grade o-rings in the end-caps to compress under pressure so as to ensure the integrity of the sealed cylinder to keep the water out and away from the camera electronics. His creation was high art, as usual.
With Arnold’s rejig of the camera completed, it was installed in Gerd’s housing and mounted on the submersible. The arm mount was able to articulate the camera up and down, left and right. A sealed cable through-port brought out the signals and allowed for remote focus and zoom of the special lens from another friend, Bernard Anjenieux. This French lens manufacturer, Anjenieux had been making high-grade specialty optics since the 1930s and they had created a lot of high performance glass, even for underwater filming during those years. Their lenses were heavily used by NASA for over half a dozen different space programs. The founder, Pierre Anjenieux, helped to design and build the world’s first zoom lens.
During the first dive, the camera suddenly stopped working. The sub resurfaced and was hauled out of the water by the crane mounted on the stern of the ship. Arnold opened up the housing and the camera circuit boards were all fried with burn mark traces everywhere. We called RCA for a second camera as a repairing the PCBs would take far too long. Every day of delay incurred thousands of dollars in equipment fees, standby costs, and crew expenses.
The second camera arrived quickly overnight and it was installed. On the second dive it also fried to a crisp, just like the first camera, however in different places on the printed circuit boards (PCB). We had no idea why? And, the RCA team was not very happy with us destroying two of their latest cameras. Reluctantly, they shipped us a third and final camera.
As the latest camera was being mounted back on the submersible, which was sitting on the stern deck of the vessel, an arrogant French diver assigned to assist us, was relaxing in the sunshine by the crane chain-smoking Gitane cigarettes, joking, and laughing at our troubles. The concept of a Master deep-sea diver chain-smoking has always perplexed me. He was hypercritical and condescending to us. He said with an English accent thick in Parisian French that “what we were doing would not work, and we were about to blow up a third camera”. I asked him, “Why?” He said it was because, “you are all stupid and do not know anything”. Not helpful, but I asked him again, “Why, are we were all stupid?” He said, “You do not understand diving”. He told us that, “We were sealing in air when we closed the cylinder and while no water could get into the casing, we were trapping moisture inside the housing”. He continued, “that during the dives, the air was under great pressure, it condensed, and the air laden moisture converted into liquid (water), which short-circuited our PCBs for the camera. Simple”. While harsh in his demeanour, we all discussed the idea and begrudgingly agreed that he was likely correct. So, we stopped the installation and pulled the camera out of the cylinder to consider options and what to do next. We could not risk this last camera.
The cylinder was placed on a direct flight to Toronto, so Gerd could modify it for us. Once in Toronto, he worked on it immediately and added two spigots to the casing. Both were heavily sealed and military grade connections. One allowed gas to ingress the cylinder, while the other allowed air to egress the cylinder. Once it was returned to B.C., Arnold reassembled the RCA broadcast camera parts back into the housing. We used an inert gas, given to us by the chain-smoking diver, to fill the camera chamber. Again, lit cigarettes and dangerous gases, not ideal, but at least now he was helping us succeed. The gas was inserted via the first entry spigot and it displaced or pushed the air out the second exit spigot. Once we had the inert gas escaping from the second spigot, it was deemed safe to assume that all of the air was pushed out of the camera housing. Thus, we had a chamber devoid of air and therefore without moisture to condense onto the PCBs.
We attempted a dive of the submersible again and took it down several hundred feet to a point where it had failed previously due to the build up of pressure. This time, the camera continued to work.
The diver told us that the submarine always “sweats” when under pressure and the floor fills with water from the condensed air inside it. So, they used a special Trimix blend of air, helium, and nitrogen in the sub to reduce or eliminate this sweating. It also helped the divers avoid the ‘bends’ and spend less time in the dive decompression hyperbaric chamber when they came back up to the surface after prolonged periods underwater. Now, we were doing a similar strategy inside the camera housing. There was still a risk of condensation, but we were far better off compared to before the addition of the inert gas.
We watched video from the ship’s deck, it was fed up the tether line and all of the various geotechnical engineers gathered around to inspect the floor of the Straits of Georgia for the first time. We had success. It was a true relief.
With lots of pats on the back to congratulate our team, our work was done. However, now that we were out there on the water, and it was all working, we stayed on station for 8 more hours while they tried to make up for some of the lost time incurred during our two previous failures. We spent the day enjoying the weather and some time at sea until we reached port later that night. After we disembark the ship, and it was properly provisioned, it would remain at sea until the work was completed and would operate 24 hours a day. We were happy to have dinner ashore, packing up our gear to depart for home the next evening.
It just goes to show you that you really do need multidisciplinary teams to work together in order to succeed on complex problems. While working in harmony is always the best way, even if the personal harmony is absent, quality work can still result if everyone is focused on a shared outcome and personalities do not get too far out of control.
We had all looked at the problem from our own perspectives. Arnold worried that RCA camera was built with inferior parts. I worried that Arnold had a design flaw in his reconfigured camera, the diver saw us all as idiots, and Gerd just complained that it was not his housing, but it was our approach and plan that was the culprit (i.e.: it was my fault).
In the end, you always have challenges on every project and they can be technical, human, or environmental. Sometimes, it is process challenges aggravated by tight budgets and too short schedules. The devil is always in the details on complicated projects, so superior communications are vital for the eventual success of an elite team.
Continued failures wear heavily on people since no one wants to fail and they start getting frustrated and begin laying blame on others. This is where a great team leader keeps the focus on the problem, and not on the team members. Although, sometimes, teams need to be reconfigured too.
Complex problems are exciting and fun. I have always loved challenges. They are like puzzles to me; yet to be solved. Once finished, you can step back and admire the accomplishment. Then, off you go to work on the next project and to solve the next puzzle.
Having the right team makes for powerful success. Sadly, both Gerd and Arnold are no longer with us. They have both passed away years ago. However, I have always felt privileged to have worked on so many projects with them and to have spent so much quality time understanding their personal worlds over countless dinners and drinks. Both of these friends were unique characters, but both had unparalleled levels of genius in them that still amazes me to this day. The truth be told, I am a better person and a better problem solver today due to the many challenges that we faced, shared, and solved together.
So, I am thinking of my two friends today with warm thoughts and admiration.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.