Transformer in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab with the Canon EOS 5DS R

Transformer in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab with the Canon EOS 5DS R

Many of us dream of going to outer space, but here on earth we have to settle with heading underwater instead. Ambassador Ken Kiefer recently did a series of photo shoots in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. This has been one of our dream dive destinations for a long time so we couldn't wait to sit down with him and hear what it was like.

NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) serves the primary function of preparing for space missions involving spacewalks. It's currently the closest thing we have to the conditions that astronauts can be expected to face when performing tasks in space. Basically it's a huge pool: 202 feet long ( meters), 102 feet wide ( meters), and 40 feet deep ( meters). It holds 6.2 million gallons of water and includes full-scale working models of the shuttle and station robotic arms.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

Several ex-NASA robotics engineers started up Houston Mechatronics. One of their current projects is this sophisticated robot developed for use repairing oil pipelines.

What you were doing at the NBL?

I was shooting for a company called Houston Mechatronics. Half of them are made up of ex-NASA engineers that were working in their robotics program, and they split off into a start-up company. They do a variety of things, but the Aquanaut is like an underwater transformer that was developed for pipeline work. To avoid sending people to extreme depths and extreme temperatures to do repairs.

They didn’t want just average technical pictures and they had seen an article about me in the Houston Chronicle. They really liked my style so they wanted me to go out there.

What’s cool about it is that I’ve been wanting to get in the NBL for about 20 years and I ended up getting paid to get in it so that’s great.

"Aquanaut represents a radical new design that its creators, at a startup called Houston Mechatronics Inc. (HMI), hope will completely change subsea robotics. Conventional UUVs typically fit into two categories: torpedo-like free-swimming submersibles, which are used for long-distance survey missions, and boxy remotely operated machines, which are tethered to support vessels and used for underwater manipulation. HMI wants to combine both of these modes into a single robot. It’s a bold approach that no one has attempted before." - Evan Ackerman, IEEE Spectrum

 Additional Reading:  Meet Aquanaut, the Underwater Transformer

What equipment did take with you?

Over the course of three days shooting I took three different set-ups: the Canon EOS 5DS R with Canon EF 11-24mm and 8-14mm Fisheye lenses, and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with the 16-35mm f/2.8 III. All of my rigs have GoPros mounted on top and dual DS161 strobes.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

The articulating arms perform a variety of useful functions in addition to some cool dance moves.

Were you working with a whole team of people?

I was in back in April when they were doing initial testing.  So I went under and shot it while they were checking out the propulsion and opening the top. It starts off as a submarine and then it pops open—the top shell comes up—and that gives access to what I call the “head." The head can come out and it can articulate and so can the arms.

The arms weren’t working in April but on this dive it had full operation- it danced actually- whatever you call it when you hold your arms straight out and do a wave. The head can swivel around, it’s got lights, it can grab, it has a tool tray that will drop down. It can retract and grab a tool and perform functions. It’s got sonar, it’s got some kind of radar, and a laser light that can perform 3D mapping so they can tell if something’s wrong. I haven’t seen everything that it can do, some of it is classified.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

The "head" of the unit opens up and can swivel around.

They had a huge team there because they’re still working on the language that can translate the orders into motion by the robot.

As far as in the water, basically all they had was a pair of divers that would go down and unbolt the cradle after the crane lifted it into the water. Then they got out and I got in. They gave me a safety diver who would watch me work which was required by the NBL.

How did it differ from shooting in a normal sized pool?

A big plus to being in that much space was that I didn't have to worry about blowback from the strobes coming off the walls. In a normal pool, I'm always having to be careful of walls or the bottom so they don't become blown out by the strobes or reflect too much back on the subject. On the other hand, I didn't have any walls to reflect some light either.

You mentioned classified information... what kind of clearances does it take to get in there?

To get in the NBL I had to go through two physicals, test my dive ability, and sit through hours of safety videos and lectures. It was pretty extensive. There were a whole bunch of non-disclosures.

I did get to tour the entire thing but I couldn’t take my camera along, and I couldn’t take any pictures of the astronauts.  But I got to see them and it was pretty awesome.

Then we did some night stuff where they shut all of the lights off. It was pretty cool. It’s amazing that that thing exists. You asked earlier if it’s as big as it sounds and it looks bigger- it’s really huge and really cool.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

During one portion of the shoot the lights were turned off to shoot some "night" stuff.

Is there like a horizon when you look across it?

No but almost. And there’s a lot more to it than I thought. I thought it was just a giant pool, but there’s classrooms and all kinds of rooms where they can link in and the engineers can talk to the people underwater.

There are speakers all around the pool and if you’re in the water you can clearly hear any instruction to the astronauts- for example, if they say “OK you need to disconnect that tether and move the solar array over here…” It’s crazy.

Houston Mechatronics Robot in NBL with Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

NASA's full scale training models provided a cool high-tech backdrop for the futuristic transformer.

Was the Aquanaut working on the space station model?

They had their own test stuff. They didn’t go over to the space station but it was a great background. Mainly I was just shooting the robot, then I would do video of it transforming and going through its various positions and arm functions.

I tried to talk them into taking it to the Bahamas and getting a shot with 50 sharks around it, which would be amazing and super-doable if they could just get it over there.

Did you have a chance to swim around the structures?

Yeah I got to swim into one of the air-locks and all around the structures. I didn’t go in a bunch of stuff.

Are they smaller than you thought?

I can’t imagine living in that thing, but given the opportunity I would do it because how many people get the chance? I would suck it up.

But would you go without Kimber?

I would apologize profusely to her when I got back.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

The size of the NBL is breathtaking. At 40 feet (12m) deep, the pool holds 6.2 million gallons of water. 

What was the most impressive thing about the NBL?

The size and their structure- and their ability to keep a handle on everything going on in the entire facility.

I usually don’t wear any shoes, and I came in flip-flops with my gear the first time. Immediately a safety guy came over and said, “Nope you’ve gotta wear steel toe boots if you’re carrying anything over 10 pounds.”

So that first day, somebody had to come and set all of my gear up, stand my tank up, move it over to the edge of the pool… and I was like, well this is kind of cool, maybe I shouldn’t wear shoes every time. But I felt bad so I got some steel toe tennis shoes off Amazon.

Houston Mechatronics Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

The robot features radar, sonar, and 3D mapping capabilities for information gathering in addition to the ability to operate tools with its fully articulating arms. 

Are you going to be going back again?

I’m not scheduled to. If they did some kind of ocean testing I’d be up for it.

Transformers in the NBL Ken Kiefer Ikelite Housing

Ambassador Ken Kiefer hovers next to Houston Mechatronic's transforming robot in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas.

What would you do differently next time you go in?

If I had the possibility of having a few assistants, I would love to use remote triggers and place strobes throughout the NBL for some killer shots of the entire pool plus some great over-unders.




Ken Kiefer Ikelite AmbassadorAmbassador Ken Kiefer has had a love of the water and nature since his younger days surfing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He got his first breath of compressed air while lifeguarding and was immediately hooked. Ken spends his professional life in and around a pool, which provides a handy spot to work on underwater photography and lighting techniques. But his passion is the ocean, and his favorite subjects are sharks (and his wife, Ambassador Kimber Kiefer). Read more...

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