ATTLEBORO - When it comes to inspecting submerged oil platforms or exploring deep ocean trenches, companies and researchers rely on unmanned, remote controlled vehicles to venture to perilous depths.
But key technology that makes the deep-diving supersubs work comes from a landlocked industrial park in Attleboro. Engineered Syntactic Systems on Frank Mossberg Drive creates buoyancy systems for tethered and autonomous underwater vehicles used for missions that range from oil exploration to the search for the Titanic.
The company's products even were used in the Bluefin Robotics deep-diving explorer dispatched to search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
President and managing partner Thomas Murray said his company's underwater technology is an offshoot of products created for the thermoforming industry.
He and two partners created CMT Materials, which creates tooling materials for companies that make cups and other heat-formed plastic products, in 1998. The two companies share space in the same building and employ just under 50 people. "Not a lot of people know what we do here," said Murray, whose company produces a specialized type of buoyant foam that makes submersibles and other undersea craft lighter. "It's a niche business," he said.
Products made by the company are intended to create "neutral buoyancy" in an underwater vehicle that would otherwise sink to the bottom or bob to the surface. The result is a more nimble craft that can stay underwater longer, do more work and requires less energy to operate.
Most lightweight foam is made by blowing air into a resin matrix, Murray said. That doesn't work at great depths because air spaces trapped inside the resin collapse under pressure.
ESS' foam consists of tiny, hollow glass spheres suspended in resin. The spheres, usually only a few microns in diameter, hold the air and create a material that is buoyant in water. "We like to say that we sell reinforced air," Murray said.
Once cast into blocks, foam is machined and given a urethane coating. Parts are usually made to order for a particular customer and can take the shape of a block, sphere or become part of the shell of the undersea vehicle. Besides robotic subs, ESS' foam has been used in ocean-monitoring buoys for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and on Navy ships.
ESS systems were a "mission critical" component of the Bluefin Robotics Artemis 21 autonomous underwater vehicle used in the Malaysia Airlines search, according to the company's website. The Artemis 21 is able to submerge to a depth of 4,500 meters - almost three miles. At their most extreme, the company's products are engineered to go as deep as the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. That's up to seven miles down.
Murray says there appears to be bottomless potential for sales growth in buoyancy systems in coming years. Private companies are expanding the use of unmanned subs for research, inspection, search and recovery and security-related missions, he said.
Other growth markets include privately owned underwater craft and recreation, and local governments exploring the use of subs to patrol harbors and lakes.