Ron Allum is living proof that if you do what you love — and do it well — then success will almost certainly follow.
By combining a love of diving with a talent for innovative solutions to novel engineering problems, Allum has built a successful business, won awards and helped to take a manned vehicle to the ocean’s deepest point and back.
Along the way, he’s also had experiences that read like Hollywood film scripts.
In 1988, Allum found himself out of work after a 20-year career at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. So he and fellow diver Andrew Wight decided to make a film about an expedition to a complex of underwater caves near Cocklebiddy, more than 30 metres below Australia’s Nullarbor desert.
“The idea was to get funding so we could buy scuba equipment for the cave dive,” says Allum.
But the result was far more dramatic than Wight and Allum could have predicted.
“I was on the last dive of the expedition when we had a cyclonic storm overhead,” says Allum. “The cave became like a bath drain — water was swirling around, going down this huge hole in the ground … until it collapsed the cave entrance, literally on top of us.”
Trapped underground, the party had no choice but to wait more than 24 hours until the water subsided, then thread their way through the rubble to safety.
“It was pretty hairy,” says Allum, with characteristic understatement.
The resulting documentary, Nullarbor Dreaming, later became the inspiration behind the action movie Sanctum. It was also the start of a lasting collaboration between Wight and Allum, who went on to make more than a dozen documentaries together — most of them underwater.
Finding new solutions
Along the way, Allum built a reputation for technical innovation.
“I’ve always made things,” he says. “My mechanical engineering skills are probably inherited from my dad. He helped me learn things by trial and error, rather than just showing me the way.”
Whenever a new filmmaking problem arose, Allum was ready with a solution — from underwater strobe lights, to flotation sleds for carrying gear underwater, and a safety cage for filming sharks and saltwater crocodiles off the Northern Territory.
In 2001, Allum’s talent for technical innovation caught the eye of James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar. Like Allum, Cameron had a history of combining his passion for underwater exploration with his love of filmmaking.
“Jim does tell the story that he proposed the movie Titanic to Fox so he could go dive the Titanic,” says Allum.
They soon found they had plenty in common. “Jim, like myself, will build platforms for cameras or camera people, to take them places, achieve results and get the images in the can,” says Allum.
Those platforms included two purpose-built underwater vehicles and two Russian cold-war era submersibles, used to take 3D footage of the Titanic for the 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss.
Then in 2005, Cameron asked Allum to help him take on his greatest challenge yet: building a deep-ocean submersible capable of descending to the ocean’s deepest point — the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Voyage to the bottom of the sea
The technical challenges were enormous. The sub would need to descend almost 11 kilometres, deeper than Everest is tall. That meant it needed to operate at a depth where no light penetrates and where the water pressure is around eight tons per square inch — a thousand times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.
And the project team aimed to do more than simply reach the bottom of the sea. “We also wanted to bring back high-quality 3D images of the ocean floor, core samples and rock samples,” says Allum.
“We tried to do everything — be first, be scientific and bring back great images.”
That could have been daunting for someone with no formal engineering training and no experience in building manned submersibles. But Allum’s distinctive background also allowed him to approach the problem with a fresh eye.
“We had all these different ideas,” he says. “Other people had built submersibles before, but we weren’t comfortable with how they did it.”
Instead, Allum designed a unique spherical steel capsule for the pilot, along with new thrusters, new lightweight electronics and batteries designed to work at pressure on the outside of the vehicle — even a specially developed syntactic foam for flotation.
“I’m pleased to say that we came up with a really good product and we were able to patent that technology,” says Allum.
The resulting vehicle, Deepsea Challenger, won an Australian Design Award, with the judges describing it as “a stunning use of design at the highest order … incredible, inspirational, a total game changer.” It also took Cameron to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in a historic dive on 26 March 2012, a depth of 10,898 metres.
For Allum, the project has launched a new business, Deapsea Systems, specialising in technologies and systems capable of operating at full ocean depth. The company’s flagship product is Isofloat®, the structural flotation material developed for Deepsea Challenger. And Allum continues to come up with new innovations.
“I guess I’m an outside-the-square thinker — it would be hard to work on somebody else’s project,” he says. "Sometimes things can be done differently.”
Ron Allum spoke at CPA Congress 2012. To hear him and other presenters, go to Congress on Demand.