Newcastle startup develops 'protective' wetsuit it says will improve survival rates in shark attacks

Reducing risk: Aqua Armour's Dr Thomas Fiedler at Newcastle Ocean Baths. Picture: Marina Neil
Reducing risk: Aqua Armour's Dr Thomas Fiedler at Newcastle Ocean Baths. Picture: Marina Neil

A NSW Hunter Valley startup has developed a "protective" wetsuit with a design it says can drastically improve survivability of shark attacks.

Five years in the making, Aqua Armour is spearheaded by Thomas Fiedler and Chris Dayas, from Newcastle, respectively Associate Professor and Professor at University of Newcastle, and UoN alumni Alex Vardanega and Trent Verstegen.

The startup began when Mr Fiedler, a mechanical engineer and self-described "poor surfer" who has spent years researching protective materials, began talking with Mr Dayas, a keen surfer, about how to decrease the risk during a shark attack.

"When you are young enough you are immortal but once you have families, as we did, you re-evaluate the risk," he says.

Working with his engineering students on their final year project, the group began to research protective materials for use in a wetsuit. Their four research pillars were the material itself, human anatomy, shark behaviour and agility.

"It's not difficult to stop a shark bite, you take a few millimetres of steel and you are fine but you can't put that on a surfer and expect them to wear it," he says. "What you need is something that's strong enough to stop a shark tooth but has to be flexible and comfortable to wear."

The UoN group tested materials for their strength and flexibility by sourcing real shark teeth, which they imbedded into dental cement then forced into the material using a a precision testing machine.

"We were interested in great white shark which is responsible for the vast majority of fatal shark attacks, but as a protected animal it's hard to get their teeth - in the end we sourced them from sharks who are older than the protection dates," he said.

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The group spent four years testing two types of material, a fibre-reinforced composite and a high-tech chain mail, before arriving at a point that it could imbed it into a wetsuit in strategic places. The have developed and tested numerous prototypes.

"One of our co-founders is a professor in anatomy and we looked into where does a bite become fatal and life threatening - that's where we want to protect," Mr Fiedler said.

The areas of most concern are the thighs of the upper leg where the femoral arteries are located, and the inside upper arm.

"Most shark attack victims die from blood loss so we protect those areas so they don't get penetrated by shark teeth and there's time to get to hospital before you bleed out," he said.

The wetsuit design was informed by research of shark behaviour and the three types of common attacks: the "sneak" attack which is the least common but highest threat, driven by shark feeding patterns and causing multiple lacerations; the "hit and run", the most common attack usually by smaller sharks that have a lower impact and less injuries; and the "bump and bite", when sharks circle and may test to see if they eat the prey.

Agility in the water was a key consideration in the development of the wetsuit material, allowing adequate stretch. and making sure it feels exactly like your old wetsuit.

"We believe that for anyone to want to wear it it has to feel the same as a standard wetsuit. It's only slightly heavier that's the only compromise."

Dr Fiedler said it was obvious the protective Aqua Armour wetsuit could not offer full protection in a "sneak" shark attack but it could help prevent typical life-threatening wounds seen in some fatal shark attacks and "drastically improve" survivability.

"I like using the analogy to a car. If you get into an accident you want wear your seat belt, have lots of airbags around you, a stiff passenger cell, and so on," he said. "If you get bitten by a shark, you really want to wear Aqua Armour. It provides the best possible protection, but just like in a car crash there are unfortunately no guarantees. Our aim is to decrease the severity of injuries and turn most fatalities into injuries so you have something to recover from."

"If you look at the types of attacks and injuries of survivors and in the fatalities, it was very hard for us because we could see our wetsuit may have saved them."

Aqua Armour is poised to launch a Kickstarter fund to raise an estimated $40,000 it needs to commercialise its prototype.

Mr Fiedler says that the benefits of the suit include less threat to surfers, many of whom have young families, peace of mind for surfers and the reduced need to cull sharks.

The startup also hopes to boost the local economy: " We intend to assemble our wetsuits in the Hunter region generating employment opportunities," he said.

Aqua Armour has just finished a small seed funding round and, he says, wants to bring its product "from the lab to the surface."

Registrations of interest in the startup can be made via contact@aquaarmour.com.au

This story 'Where does a shark bite become fatal and life threatening?' first appeared on Newcastle Herald.