The Engineering Behind Elon Musk’s Bid to Save Thailand’s Cave Boys


Round 6 pm Tuesday at Tham Luang in Thailand, the final of the 13 survivors who had spent 18 days trapped in a cave emerged to security. A rescue crew had spent the previous three days getting the boys out after 5 days of determined planning and calculations since their discovery.

Because the boys’ oxygen provide dwindled, doubts within the rescuers’ skill to save lots of them mounted. The boys weren’t skilled scuba divers, they usually had been going through a voyage on which a professional Thai Navy SEAL died, whereas putting oxygen tank provides alongside the route.

Then Elon Musk entered the fray, apparently on the humble request of a Twitter follower:

What adopted was a curious few days the place two rescue operations performed out concurrently. The primary was the official one in Thailand that in the end proved profitable, and the second was run by Musk—an unsolicited effort that Thai authorities in the end referred to as “not practical for our mission” however one which captivated the web and bolstered probably the most flattering picture of Musk: as a superb engineer with a nostril for sudden options to urgent issues, delivered in file time.

In his inimitable vogue, Musk began tossing out contemporary concepts for methods to free the boys, chatting together with his followers. It impressed a wealth of budding engineers to brainstorm and ship hand-drawn designs his manner too.

“Boring Co has advanced ground penetrating radar & is pretty good at digging holes. Don’t know if pump rate is limited by electric power or pumps are too small. If so, could dropship fully charged Powerpacks and pumps.”

For a mogul who has spent latest months combating with the press and some buyers, it was an opportunity to place these expertise and an ample checking account to make use of for an unambiguously nice trigger, with no irritating quibbling over manufacturing charges or monetary figures.

So, by no means one to maintain a single undertaking in thoughts, Musk began down two paths. For the primary, he tapped Wing Inflatables.

The SpaceX contractor relies in Arcata, California, 350 miles north of San Francisco. “We manufacture inflatable recovery parts for SpaceX,” says CEO Andrew Branagh. “So we have a relationship. When Elon had an idea, he asked our engineering team to get a hold of us.” So they hopped on a conference call. “Elon Musk was on the call,” Branagh says. “He was very visionary. I used to be impressed. They had been open to our concepts.”

The results of the collaborative brainstorm was a pink kevlar pouch of kinds, designed to hold the boys. The “inflatable tube with airlocks,” as Musk referred to as it, could possibly be pulled alongside, stretcher fashion, by a skilled diver, releasing the boys from needing to learn to dive or use scuba gear.

“They are like a bell chamber,” Branagh says. Simply as a church bell tower incorporates or releases sound by closing or opening a collection of vents, the inflatable tube with airlocks makes use of air strain to manage the buoyancy, vital for transferring by means of a cave advanced the place you sometimes should drop right down to hold transferring ahead. Whenever you flip elements of the pods a technique, it permits them to drift. “When you turn them another way, they sink.” (To maintain the boys calm throughout an extended, claustrophobic voyage, Branagh steered valium.)

They moved quick and labored onerous. “We began with an idea at eight am and had a prototype within the pool being examined the identical day,” Branagh says. “Then the team stayed until 1 in the morning and built more units.” Sufficient models to get all 12 boys, plus their coach, out of the cave and into the daylight. The next afternoon, Musk’s jet touched down in Arcata to select up the potential life savers. “A third of the factory went to the plane to wish it luck,” Branagh says.

The pouches that went into the jet, nonetheless, by no means appeared within the public gentle, and it’s not clear the place they ended up. Musk by no means talked about them on Twitter. Whereas Branagh and his crew had been racing to place them collectively, Musk was hedging his bets with one other design strategy.

Constructed from an oxygen tube designed for a SpaceX Falcon rocket, the bullet-shaped capsule adopted the identical precept because the pouch the Wing crew devised, an air strain–managed automobile of kinds for the boys to put inside whereas the professional divers guided them to security. Musk referred to as it a “kid-sized submarine” and stated it was 12.2 inches in diameter, skinny sufficient to suit by means of the narrowest “choke hold” of the passage. He referred to as it Wild Boar, in honor of the boys’ soccer crew.

“Good for rescuing vulnerable patients in dangerous environments,” he tweeted, “particularly if water, toxic gas or dangerous bacteria/viruses present, as patient would remain dry & at [standard] air pressure entire time.” And since Musk is at all times pondering on a couple of tracks without delay, he famous, “with some mods this might additionally work as an escape pod in house.”

Because the engineering course of sped alongside, Musk up to date the general public with a gradual stream of tweets. The aluminum capsules might use a skinny layer of neoprene insulation, he stated, and their buoyancy could be managed by strapping diving weight belts round them.

Musk additionally thought of one follower’s suggestion so as to add a music participant to the setup. “Yeah, that sounds cool,” he replied. “Music makes issues higher. Calms the thoughts. Including padded wall pockets for a hand radio & cellphone/music participant.”

However by the point Musk’s crew had examined its design in a Los Angeles pool, on Saturday, the rescue operation was already underway in Thailand, and Musk’s assist wasn’t wanted. “Will proceed testing in LA in case wanted later or for some other place in future.”

Nonetheless, Musk put the design on his aircraft and made the journey over the Pacific. When he arrived, it was day three of the rescue. Eight boys had been already out protected, because of the low-tech diving technique, and the remaining 4 boys and their coach would quickly be free. He dropped off the mini-sub in one of many caves within the lengthy advanced. “Leaving this right here in case it might be helpful,” he tweeted. “Thailand is so beautiful.”

It’s unclear whether or not the design might have been useful had it arrived earlier, and whether or not the swiftly assembled capsule would have met the calls for of the diving and medical specialists on the scene. Representatives for SpaceX and Musk declined to reply questions on numerous particulars of the method, together with the crew’s communications with native authorities. Regardless of the solutions, Musk was wanting to play a task within the rescue. And for that, he confronted accusations that he inserted himself within the scenario to advertise himself.

“Musk has a long track record of promising to solve huge problems and then either missing deadlines or falling short,” Adam Clark Estes wrote in Gizmodo. “Along the way, he’s also built up a cult of personality that leads fans to compare him to comic book superheroes. So even if Musk isn’t really serious about his ridiculous, buzz-building projects, plenty of people still think he is.”

Musk once more took to Twitter to parry the critique: “This reaction has shaken my opinion of many people. We were asked to create a backup option & worked hard to do so. Checked with dive team many times to confirm it was worthwhile. Now it’s there for anyone who needs it in future. Something’s messed up if this is not a good thing.”

By Wednesday afternoon, he’d moved on to a brand new downside that wants fixing. “Please consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels,” he tweeted. “No kidding.”


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