Underwater engineer

Professional context

Man has used engineering solutions since he began direct exploration of the aquatic environment, yet the figure of the underwater engineer is little known. The activities are manifold and cover Civil, Environmental and Industrial Engineering applications. The fields of operation can be summarised as:

  • surveys and mapping;
  • materials testing;
  • development of equipment and instrumentation;
  • deformation monitoring and environmental monitoring;
  • construction and installation of submerged structures and infrastructure: dams, submerged barriers, ports
  • dredging;
  • installations in the marine, lake and river environment;
  • construction and installations in the oil industry: installations, controls of platforms, pipelines, valves, etc;
  • recovery of submerged or semi-submerged structures and hulls.

As in land-based construction sites, in underwater operations the engineer supervises the work carried out by the teams of metal workers (underwater technical operators), often remotely, by means of audio and video communication systems, but also, in certain specific circumstances that allow and require it, in the presence of the underwater workers. Of course, the roles of engineer and worker should not be confused, even when one, having the required training, plays the role of the other. For example, the underwater engineer assists with the installation of artefacts and often needs to have the technical knowledge to enable him to instruct operations with proper knowledge. For example, he must be familiar with the functions of mechanical couplings when he has to support an installation, such as valve and pipeline assembly. 

A particular skill that sees the engineer in the first person on a dive is the surveying and mapping operations that are preliminary to any underwater 'engineering' work. The instruments used, among others, are: metric string, digital tablet or tablets, underwater levels and photogrammetric cameras, underwater theodolite, laser systems. The important role played by underwater engineers in materials testing and the development of equipment and instrumentation for underwater, nautical and naval use (often also combined with aerospace contexts) should also not be forgotten.



An engineer analysing the functionality of a new underwater tablet intended for underwater measurements and mapping

Use of an underwater laser for underwater topographic measurements

Educational paths

A diver who wants to enter a profession in the field of engineering applications in the underwater environment must have a technological background. After a high school diploma in a technical or scientific institute, a degree in an engineering field is required, such as a Civil, Environmental or Industrial Engineering course or a more multidisciplinary Sea Technology Engineering course. Unfortunately, in Italy there is no teaching of underwater scientific methods in engineering courses, so technical and scientific diving training must be acquired in extra-university courses, especially with regard to knowledge of safety procedures to be adopted at work, surveying and mapping techniques, but also to acquire an initial manual ability with the necessary tools and equipment.

Employment opportunities

As is the case for many scientists, in the work context, diving activity for an engineer is not predominant, yet possessing these skills can expand employment outlets albeit in a relatively small number of fields. The underwater engineer can find employment in the professional field in supporting activities of the construction and installation of underwater constructions and systems. Employment can be found as a freelancer or as an employee mainly with private companies involved in underwater work, with companies in the construction and installation sector in submerged environments, or with off-shore oil companies. Sometimes public entities equip themselves with underwater personnel experienced in technical-engineering underwater activities, such as Port Authorities. Another possible employment outlet is applied research activities in academia or at companies that also develop R&D activities internally.

Article from:

Capra A. (2020) L'ingegnere subacqueo. Identikit professionali degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei. La collana del faro, Il Pianeta Azzurro, 2/2020: 18-20.

The author:


Alessandro Capra

Professor of Geomatics at the Department of Engineering "Enzo Ferrari" of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and member of the scientific-technical committee of AIOSS. He is an expert in topography and cartography and has carried out underwater surveys in various contexts, from tropical coral reefs, to underwater caves, to under the ice of Antarctica.