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Andrea Raff Makes History on Female Crew for Submersible Delivery Vehicle

Tuesday, December 01, 2015
Andrea Raff working on submersible delivery vehicle.

Underwater Adventures: Andrea Raff, right, prepares to co-pilot Proteus, an underwater vehicle with the ability to operate as a manned swimmer delivery vehicle and as an unmanned undersea vehicle. (Photo provided by Huntington Ingalls Industries)

Andrea Raff has taken her interests in engineering and scuba diving to new depths in becoming a member of the first female crew to drive a human-controlled swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV).

The 2011 mechanical engineering alumna partnered with Chloe Mallet, a colleague at Huntington Ingalls Industries' Undersea Solutions Group (USG), in operating the company's Proteus submersible vehicle to depths of up to 25 feet in Florida's Saint Andrews Bay.

SDVs are combat submersibles used by U.S. Navy SEALS and other naval special warfare all-male teams around the world. Proteus can be used for integrating and testing payloads, transporting and installing equipment on the sea floor, inspecting undersea infrastructure, and transporting a team of combat swimmers and cargo-up to 150 feet below the surface when manned; 200 feet when unmanned.

"There is going to be a greater need for undersea vehicles in the future," Raff says. "They become desirable because autonomous underwater vehicles are starting to replace tasks that were previously done by humans. Manned submersibles are also allowing humans to explore greater areas of the oceans and take them deeper. We have mapped only 5 percent of the world's oceans, and underwater vehicles will help us learn more about our own planet."

There are women submersible pilots that operate dry submersibles, but these are not SDVs.

Raff and Mallet are the only two women on USG's seven-person dive team working with Proteus from its base in Panama City, Florida.

Joining USG a year ago for the opportunity to utilize her skills as an engineer and diver, Raff has worked on a variety of projects for the Navy and Marines. She also spends time in development testing, improving mechanical systems, and as a crew member for Proteus. Specifically, Raff was responsible for improving and maintaining the wet joysticks that the pilot and co-pilot use to steer the 25-foot-long vehicle to its destination.

Co-piloting a mission, Raff sits in full scuba gear at the front of the vehicle, completely filled with water. From here she helps keep track of the sonar-based navigation system and makes adjustments of the payload's weight distribution in order for the 8,240-pound Proteus to remain level in the water. The subtle glow from two computer screens provides some light within the driver's compartment, allowing the co-pilots to see one another. Other than that it is very dark existence for the length of the voyage.

"You can't tell you are moving forward unless the canopy doors are open, but you can feel the pitch and roll of the vehicle," says Raff, providing insight on the dive-driving experience.

Raff has been diving since she was 12 years old, and was president of Rose-Hulman's Scuba Club. She is now a certified master scuba diver, with additional certifications as a rescue diver.

"I definitely feel fortunate to be able to have such a unique opportunity to dive Proteus," she states. "I love the ocean and diving, and knowing that I'm combining that with my passion for engineering makes my job enjoyable."