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The man who built James Cameron a foam submarine

Innovation

If you’ve ever enjoyed footage of a Great White shark in a feeding frenzy, a vast underground cave system, or the ghostly remains of a shipwreck, it’s quite likely you’ve benefitted from Ron Allum’s handiwork. He is described as a bush 

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mechanic but a marine mechanic is perhaps more fitting: an Aussie with a love of the world beneath the ocean’s surface and a natural knack for problem solving

“My grandfather had a company which did engineering work and my father joined the family business,” says Allum. “I never did join the firm, but I picked up some knowledge growing up.” 

After leaving school in his mid-teens Allum took a technician traineeship with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), working on television and radio equipment. At around the time, he joined the University of New South Wales Speleologist society. For the next few years Allum’s practical skills developed on the job, while his weekends were spent exploring underwater cave systems. It was the beginning of his two passions entwining. 

After finishing his ABC traineeship, Allum was conscripted and posted to Singapore where, to his delight, he discovered a defunct diving club in his regiment. 

“An officer agreed to let me start it up again on the condition my mates and I would study how to use the equipment then give lectures to others. Whenever we had leave, we’d hire a junk and go diving.”

After returning to civilian life and his job at the ABC, Allum relocated to Adelaide to purchase a house within striking distance of many of Australia’s natural wonders. He became a leading member of the Cave Divers Association of Australia and was also part of a group that ventured deep into the unmapped caves of the Nullarbor Plains. 

“I arranged my work schedule so that I’d have time to go on caving expeditions and also work part-time as a scuba instructor,” he says. 

While his pursuit of the great outdoors was largely unpaid, Allum was becoming known in the cave diving community for his ingenuity in crafting user-friendly sleds for carrying supplies underwater. He had also designed radio transmitters able to penetrate 90 metres of hard rock. 

When one of Allum’s cave diving buddies, Andrew Wight, decided to make a low-budget documentary about the spectacular sights that lay under the Nullarbor Plains, Allum was a natural choice to be technical advisor. 

Released in 1988, Nullarbor Dreaming, wasn’t seen by many but it mattered not, the film impressed one well-heeled nature lover, Ron Rivett, co-founder of the Super 8 motel chain. Rivett bankrolled a series of nature documentaries, employing Wight and Allum to create them. 

“For almost a decade we travelled to places such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Gulf of Carpentaria,” says Allum. 

“It was my job to do things such as build cages that could protect a cameraman from sharks or crocodiles. I remember we were able to film a Great White shark for half an hour once thanks to the safe but manoeuvrable cage I designed. Playing a role in capturing those kind of images was incredibly satisfying.”    

The aquatic documentaries Wight made with Allum’s assistance impressed fans of the genre and in 2000 Wight was contacted by James Cameron, Titanic director. Cameron invited Wight to LA for a meeting to discuss forming a partnership to film deep-sea expeditions. Wight invited his right-hand man, Allum, along for the ride. 

“Jim is an ideas man like me – the difference is he’s got the cash to make his ideas happen,” notes Allum. He had become Australia’s most influential bush mechanic, thriving on using unorthodox techniques and available materials to solve problems, but this opportunity propelled him on to the global stage.

Acclaimed documentaries such as Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep, Expedition: Bismarck and Last Mysteries of The Titanic came from the Wight-Cameron partnership. Allum, nicknamed ‘The Professor’ by Cameron, provided the technical knowhow that made these projects possible. His most exacting assignment arrived when Cameron decided he wanted a vertical submersible that could travel to the deepest depths of the ocean, using flotation material for the chassis.

Passionate about Australian materials and craftsman ship, Allum worked out they could use gun barrel steel forged in Albury, NSW and machined in Melbourne on the basis of some computer modelling done in Tasmania to create the outer shell.

“I said to Jim, ‘Give me a cheque for $80,000 and we can start tomorrow,’” he says.

This was the first step in building what was to become the famous Deepsea Challenger. The next hurdle was to fashion a buoyant syntactic foam chassis capable of withstanding immense stress. Allum found the commercially available syntactic foam to have an uneven density, meaning it would disintegrate at the pressure created by deep water. He worked out a way to mix up the foam into a type of “meringue mixture”, resulting in a uniformly dense and extraordinarily strong foam, the first of its kind. When he told Cameron what he’d achieved, the director urged him to patent it.

Over the next 12 months, Allum project managed the building of what was destined to be the world’s most innovative submersible. From his Sydney workshop, he continued to look local for the expertise he needed.

“A local boatbuilder developed a new technology to glue the blocks of foam together and we had other Sydney-based businesses do the machining, create the electronics and making parts for the thruster motors,” says Allum. “I saw no reason I couldn’t do everything from Sydney.” 

“There’s an amazing talent pool [in Australia]. They’re people who are used to thinking outside of the square to get things done, probably because they don’t usually have access to the same budgets as their peers in countries such as the US.” 

While hesitant about claiming Aussies have a monopoly on resourcefulness, Allum observes the environment they encounter engenders a can-do attitude. 

“Australia is a big and sometimes risky place. If your car breaks down in the middle of the outback you better be able to fix it.”              

On 25 March 2012, James Cameron took Deepsea Challenger to a record-breaking 11 kilometres below sea level to explore the Mariana Trench near Guam. It was a voyage which had not been made before and, when it was completed safely, Allum says he experienced a come-down, perhaps to be expected after what had been an incredible career-high. 

“You pour your heart and soul into a project and then it ends and it’s a case of ‘OK, what’s next?’” says Allum, who abruptly found himself a free agent. 

Ron’s next step was to go into business, establishing Ron Allum Deepsea Systems. His original focus wamanufacturing Isofloat foam in block form, developed to form the submersible’s chassis and floatation.  As he became more established however, he was approached by clients with highly specialised needs relating to their operations in deep, remote and hostile environments.  

In response he formed a second company, Ron Allum Deepsea Services, in 2013. 

“Services focuses on the production, inspection and testing of specialist, high value parts for Defence, maritime and aerospace,” he said. 

“To compliment this service we also offer a consultancy specialising in the custom design of fibre-optic and electrical penetrations, pressure tolerant electronic systems, pressure vessels and acrylic ports.” 

It has been a tough two years but that business is finally off and running.  Ron Allum Deepsea Serviceshas established relationships within the Australian Department of Defence and key Defence industry players in Australia and the United States of America, and won praise from its clients for the insight and innovative solutions it has provided.  

“I tell all my potential clients, ‘Just tell me what you want to do, I’ll sketch it out on paper and work out all the details to make it happen.”

It’s that determination and love of problem-solving that has formed the backbone of Allum’s career. In 2012 he was named New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year in recognition for his outstanding contributions in the fields of engineering, science and exploration. At the same time, the Deepsea Challenger, which was designed and manufactured by four Australian companies – Acheron Project, Design + Industry, McConaghy Boats and Finite Elements – won the Australian International Design Award of the Year.  

Allum says the best thing about his time in the spotlight was the opportunity to talk to young people. 

“I was invited to speak at schools and universities and the excitement the students showed was fantastic. If what I have done can spark their imagination and a spur passion for exploration and science then I’ve done my job.”

This story first appeared on Australian Unlimited.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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