It’s a manned submersible watercraft — aka a homebuilt submarine — that can dive up to 500 feet with a pressurized hull.
It’s rigged up with state-of-the art radio communication, cameras and lights for seeing and recording underwater. It’s all electric, driven and steered by a series of propellers.
It’s the type of thing you’d expect a well-funded oceanic researcher to be using in open water. So it’s not surprising that Reed and his compatriots get a lot of questions from spectators at area lakes like Pinecrest when they take out the “Great White Submarine,” nicknamed “Spots.”
What may be even more surprising, however, is the fact that Reed has pretty much designed and built the entire craft by himself at his Soulsbyville home.
Just last week while the conducted tests at Pinecrest Lake for hours, families, children and adults alike stopped by every few minutes to watch and ask them how they made it, what it can do, what they use it for and more.
“We get that everywhere we go,” he said.
A mechanical engineer by day, with experience in robotics and ocean exploration, Reed has been working on the craft for about a year. He is building it for an organization called the Undersea Voyager Project, headed by explorers and entrepreneurs with a mission of education about, and conservation of, the world’s ocean life.
Reed recently completed the submarine, designing and building it around an existing hull. The hull, which looks like a large propane tank but thicker and with stronger welds, is made of steel, with the frame and body made of aluminum and high-density plastic.
At 500 feet, Reed said, the hull has to withstand water pressure of more than 200 pounds per square inch. The craft has not yet been tested in the ocean, though the hull has been used on previous submarines that have.
Reed designed everything from the electronics to the onboard air and pressure system. He also used his own manufacturing machine to make most of the parts — a machine he designed and built himself, as well.
He, his wife, Rebecca Forgan-Reed, and project head Scott Cassell have been testing the Great White Submarine for weeks leading up to an ocean mission in Singapore, where the ship will be used in research related to ocean reef ecosystems.
The Undersea Voyager Project is independent from any school or research firm, funded through private donations and sponsorships.
“It’s basically the story of build it and they will come,” he said. “We wanted to build it and show other sponsors that we’re serious and can do what we said we could do.”
The project was founded in 2005 by Cassell, an explorer, filmmaker, researcher, experienced diver and occasional television personality who lives in Napa but travels to Soulsbyville regularly working with Reed.
Cassell has had previous experience piloting submersible watercraft and formed the organization to use ships like the one Reed designed for educational and research purposes.
Reed said he tracked Cassell down a little more than a year ago at a Bay Area Maker Faire — an event for entrepreneurs and inventors to show and share ideas.
With a background in subsea design, Reed said he got on board with the group quickly.
“When it comes to the workload on here, Scott has done 99 percent,” said Cassell. “He’s amazing.”
Reed has always been interested in mechanics and robotics. As a child in elementary and high school, he went to engineering camps and got an associate’s degree in the field at Napa Valley College in 1997.
After graduating, he worked as an engineer for a firm that designs medical equipment before working on remotely operated underwater vehicles with Alstom-Schilling Robotics until 2002.
Reed then worked for a stretch on his own engineering and installing wireless internet hot spots until 2006. He also travelled with wife, a professional nurse, before going back to school to get certified as a machine programmer.
“He’s always been a maker,” Forgan-Reed said.
Reed has worked full-time on the submarine since he started with the project. Along with being the chief architect, he’s also the ship’s main pilot.
The biggest challenge so far has been working alone. In previous jobs, he was working with a team of engineers and mechanics who brought their own ideas and expertise to a project.
With Undersea Voyager, Reed was the sole designer who had to use his own experience and also build on it by devouring books and other sources of information.
“This time it was all me, and there’s not a lot of reference materials for submersibles,” he said.
While Cassell is the driving force behind the Undersea Voyager Project’s ocean mission, Reed said he’s also picked up on the drive to teach about the underwater world. He said the ocean has always been interesting to him, but “it’s never been a complete passion like Jacques Cousteau” until recently.
The more he’s explored underwater expanses, the more he’s wanted to see. With an expectation for financial backing and sponsors with future projects, Reed said he hopes to stay with the organization for a while as they try and spread that interest to children and adults by giving them a chance to explore those vast underwater areas.
“When you’re actually in it, it’s amazing how big and complex it is, and how many life forms are in there,” he said.
More information about the Undersea Voyager Project is available at underseavoyagerproject.org.