Researchers at the University of Malta are developing a new wearable device that will give tailor-made decompression readings to divers, potentially saving them from medical complications.

While divers generally have computers that give them a decompression schedule to ascend slowly from the depth, these are based on theoretical calculations based on the length of time and depth of the dive.

Lead researcher Joseph Caruana explained that when divers breathe compressed air, their body uses up the oxygen but the nitrogen is not, and it begins to exit the body only at shallower depths:

“It’s like opening up a fizzy drink,” Caruana said.

“If you open it up slowly the bubbles formed by gas will leave and everything should be okay, but if you open up too quickly, there might be complications.”

If divers spend a long time underwater and the nitrogen is absorbed by their tissue, they can develop nitrogen narcosis which affects their brain and alters consciousness in a way similar to as though they had consumed alcohol.

Coming up from underwater too fast can also cause decompression sickness. As the nitrogen bubbles trapped in the body can travel virtually anywhere within it, the symptoms can vary from negligible to rapidly fatal. The condition is often referred to as 'the bends'.

“The problem is that diving computers are still based on theoretical models,” Caruana continued.

“But our device addresses this problem because it will take direct readings from the diver's body and the computer will give a decompression schedule based on those readings.”

“If you and I go diving, for example, and spend 20 minutes at 30 meters we will likely be given the same schedule.”

“But every body and physiology is different and what might be fine for me could have a negative impact on you.”

Having started in April, the project has a three-year timeline by which it aims to have produced the device for commercial availability.

The project is being supported by a €200,000 grant from the Malta Council for Science and technology. 

The final phase of the project will include trials supported by the hyperbaric unit at Mater Dei hospital, which will be tested by volunteer divers at the chamber and underwater.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us