As Difficult Rescue of Thai Soccer Team Continues, Global Community Brainstorms Solutions

While Elon Musk’s proposal to transport the boys out with a ‘kid-sized submarine’ is the most prominent, engineering minds across the world are banding together online to find safe ways to transport them out.

A schematic of the cave, similar to the ones posted on ProjectBoard to help visualize possible solutions to get the Thai soccer team out of the cave system where they are trapped. ProjectBoard members proposed traversing the narrow flooded passage (the most difficult part of the operation) with an underwater cable (Image courtesy of Express).

Nothing brings people together like a crisis, especially a crisis with high stakes and a countdown clock. In the midst of the effort to save the youth soccer team trapped in a Thai cave, problem solvers all over the world have come together. Forums like ProjectBoard have become sounding boards for creative ideas to be discussed, refined, and potentially put into practice.

The rescue operation is certainly a puzzle worthy of worldwide collaboration. The Wild Boars youth soccer team walked into the underground cave system on June 23rd, before fast-rising rain waters isolated them deep in the cave, with a difficult underwater journey between them and the outer world. While rescuers have been able to get food and water to the team, monsoon season means that the waters are likely to rise further. Thai authorities need to get them all out soon or risk them drowning. Currently, eight of the boys have been rescued by scuba-divers, leaving four boys and their 25-year-old coach still trapped in the cave.

Not content to sit at home watching news of the rescue, the ProjectBoard community have been offering solutions online. On July 7th, at the beginning of the rescue effort, user “AnonymousHelper” posted on ProjectBoard. “While most engineers invent to get their wallet filled, it appeared [sic] to me that there is a lot of creativity among us that could be used to solve a problem like this,” AnonymousHelper explained.

The most-debated solution was a tube that could be threaded through the narrow underwater passage and then filled with pressurized air to allow the players to crawl out through it. The idea bears similarities to early rescue ideas proposed by tech billionaire Elon Musk, who suggested a nylon tube on Twitter.

But instead of the nylon tube of Musk’s proposal, some users favoured a stronger tube, “A thought occurs to me that it should be possible to pull corrugated tubes through each of the pools and then pump those out,” said user 3DDave on sister website EngTips. “If the ends are above water, there should be no replenishment beyond minor leaks for the pumps to offset. Using these the children should be able to crawl out, and will have light and audible communications to guide them.”

A prototype for a rigid capsule to help the youth exit the cave, designed by a Project Board user. The prototype bears a strong resemblance to the oxygen-filled “submarine” capsule that Elon Musk settled on to send to the rescue effort. (Image courtesy of Project Board.)

While some users suggested fitting the tube with a “capsule” to send the kids through, others debated the workability of the idea in the face of the cave’s geometry. “The whole point of the nylon tube proposed by Musk is that it will deform to fit the awkward shape of the tunnels,” said ProjectBoard user PhilK. “[I’m] not sure if you’ve ever been caving before…but these crevices are highly irregular. When they say “70 cm at it’s narrowest point,” I can guarantee that they’re not talking about nice, geometry here. The capsule … would have to be malleable.”

Musk and his team decided against the tube in favour of a “kid-sized submarine,” which the billionaire designed and showed off on his personal Twitter account. According to Musk, the design is in the midst of being shipped to Thailand to help with the rescue effort.

ProjectBoard users remarked on the fact that Musk’s final design ended up looking quite like the rigid “capsule” proposed on the board.

From the test video that Musk posted to his Twitter, Musk and his engineers appear to have solved the problem of squeezing a rigid shape through a small space by making the capsule very thin, although it remains to be seen if the submarine will stand up to the more irregular geometry of the cave system.

A screenshot from Musk’s Twitter video testing the possible utility of a rigid submarine. The video shows that the capsule can make it through tight spaces, but not whether it can stand up to difficult twists and turns in the cave system.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that either the Project Board solutions or Musk’s capsule will be put to the test; the rescue team hopes to get everyone out using strategically-placed oxygen tanks and child-friendly full-face scuba masks before Musk’s intervention arrives. But these discussions are a demonstration of the power of engineering minds working in numbers. And, properly developed, they may be helpful in solving a future crisis.