On the day after Christmas, 2004, a 9+ magnitude undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia set off the deadliest tsunami in history. In the open ocean the tsunami waves traveled close to 500 mph, reaching the west coast within 16 minutes of the seabed’s rupture (just 5 minutes after NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued tsunami warnings throughout the Pacific). The earthquake sent waves 30-100 feet high into the coast of Indonesia, as well as Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. With little warning and no way to outrun waves that reached miles inland, close to 225,000 people lost their lives in Indonesia alone.

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Six years later, on the other side of the world, an aerospace engineer named Julian Sharpe imagined a new solution: riding the tsunami. His idea was the Survival Capsule — a floatable and nearly indestructible sphere, with room for people and provisions. Just two months after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake caused a tsunami to crash into Japan, Sharpe submitted his Survival Capsule design to the 2011 NASA Tech Brief Innovation Contest. The design won ninth place and shortly went into production for testing.

Not for the claustrophobic, Sharpe’s two-person spherical prototypes (capacity for some designs ranges up to ten people) are 4.5 feet in diameter, with a hatch, air vents and a small, submarine style window. An interior aluminum rib cage reinforces the pod to prevent crushing, insulation protects against debris fires and an exterior shell — in easy-to-find orange — shields from punctures and tsunami grade flooding. The capsules are designed to house provisions enough for 5 to 7 days, but, so occupants aren’t simply waiting and praying, the capsule comes with GPS, alert beacons, optional ground tethers and exterior hooks for rescue teams.

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The capsules are designed to sit, stocked with provisions, in a backyard, garage or on a flat roof. After a tsunami alert is issued, residents in at-risk areas enter the Survival Capsule, buckle themselves into the seats’ four point harnesses and wait. The pod floats atop the tsunami waves (Sharpe compares the effect to trying to hold a beach ball underwater) and has an optional bottom tether to keep the pod from being swept miles away. The weight of the pod’s water storage tanks keeps the occupants upright and allows ventilation via air vents in the roof, and emergency air tanks provide 60 minutes of oxygen should the capsule become temporarily submerged.

While designing the capsule, Sharpe had his eyes on the Nankai Trough, a tectonic plate boundary that reports predict will be the epicenter of the next major event in Japan. The proximity of a potential Nankai earthquake to Japan’s densely populated coastal areas has lead to death toll estimates as high as 325,000, Sharpe told us. With this in mind, Sharpe hopes people will “change their view of mitigation, which is currently horizontal and vertical”; horizontally outrunning the tsunami is impossible if warnings come only minutes before the tsunami, and vertical evacuation towers have previously underestimated the size and destructive force of the tsunami events. Moving from the flatland coasts of Japan to the hills farther inland is impossible for some, including high risk groups such as the elderly or injured. These are who Sharpe hopes to help.

But for public policy experts, the biggest solutions to tsunamis are risk perception and behavior change. While describing the Survival Capsule as a “very thoughtful innovative creation”, Michael Smith, Co-Director of the Center for Strategic Public Health Preparedness at Florida State University College of Medicine, doubts the device’s practicality for the very same reasons Sharpe emphasized its necessity: short warning times.

Moving from the flatland coasts of Japan to the hills farther inland is impossible for some, including high risk groups such as the elderly or injured. These are who Sharpe hopes to help.

“How will they be moved around? Are people going to carry the pods around in the back of their trucks?” Smith asked, questioning the effectiveness of a Survival Capsule if the owners aren’t at home when a tsunami strikes. Karen Geletko, a Co-Director with Smith, emphasized the importance of public tsunami safety education campaigns with simplified instructions, steps similar to those Florida takes during hurricane season. These would “protect the majority of people” rather than just Survival Capsule owners, Geletko said. Further complicating things is the Survival Capsule’s cost: a prohibitive $16,000 in Japan.

From an engineering perspective, Smith and Geletko agree the Survival Capsule is “absolutely superb”, and as an engineer, Sharpe hopes his designs will be part of the answer when Japan looks to fund solutions for future tsunamis with the multi-billion dollar equivalent they set aside after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Smith said subsidies from the government could lower the cost of the capsules (similar to tornado shelters subsidies in Tornado Alley), while development of the larger capsules could provide solutions to elderly homes and hospitals, where mobility is most limited.

Sharpe doesn’t have illusions that the Capsule is the ultimate answer, but he does see it as a step in the right direction. “The ultimate solution for tsunami mitigation will comprise of many different solutions. Our capsule is more of a personal safety system, giving people with little warning a fighting chance,” he said.

As Sharpe attempts to scale up production (he has sold 11 two-person capsules) and create prototypes with four-, six-, eight- and ten-person capacities, his biggest roadblock is funding. He’s currently competing in the NASA Tech Brief Competition 2014. You can vote for his design here.

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