VPM-B for real dives (or not)

The VPM-B model (of which I have described my understanding in previous posts) has a “derivation” in terms of bubble physics which I, as readers should have noticed, have some trouble to follow through completely as it is, to say the least, ad hoc and sketchy in places. I bet, only based on this derivation in prose plus formulas, nobody would be able to write a program to compute a VPM-B deco plan.

But we are lucky: There is a reference implementation in terms of a FORTRAN program. So, even though the VPM-B code in Subsurface is a complete rewrite (and solves many things algorithmically differently than the original code), we did a lot of testing to make sure that the plans we produce are identical to the plans computed using the FORTRAN program, even in places where we thought it makes little sense (like starting the ascent to the next stop when the ceiling depth equals the depth of the next stop rather than starting a bit earlier and making sure never to violate the ceiling during the ascent to the next stop (which is different since the ceiling goes up during the time it takes to get to the next stop). The latter is, at least to me, better motivated physically (“simply never violate the ceiling”) than basing the stop time on what happens at a different depth (namely the next stop depth) and we use the latter when computing Bühlmann schedules. But for VPM-B, we thought, given that we do not really understand the physics, we should not modify the model based on physics.

I have talked in the past about the Bühlmann model not being well defined to make all implementations come up with identical plans. In a sense, we are in a better situation with VPM-B, since there is the FORTRAN program which (at least for us) defines the model. But the problem is: This definition works only for the situation that you can compute with the FORTRAN program: You specify the bottom part of the dive and then let the program work out the ascent. Strictly speaking there is no definition for real dives: Dives where the distinction between bottom part and deco is blurred. But this is exactly what you have if you were to implement it in a dive computer or, as for Subsurface: Implement it in a dive log to show a ceiling for a logged dive (after all, Subsurface is mainly a divelog). For real dives, you cannot tell the exact point where bottom time ends and deco begins.

Unfortunately, the model depends on this: As explained in the VPM-B derivation post, one parameter that goes into the computation is the total deco time \(t_D\) (clearly that ends when you reach the surface, but where does it start?) but there are other parameters that you are supposed to evaluate at the beginning of the ascent like \(p_{1st ceiling}\) and the initial gradient for the Boyle compensation. All this depends on the time you call the end of bottom time and thus the computed ceilings also depend on that.

For Subsurface, we decided to take the point of time with the deepest ceiling (which, strictly speaking, is a circular definition but in practice is irrelevant) as the end of bottom time and base the ceiling computation in logbook mode on that. But that, to some degree, is arbitrary. And even for dives that we planned using VPM-B (and thus agree with the schedules computed by the FORTRAN program), applying this logic yields a slightly different ceiling. So it can appear that a VPM-B planned dive violates the VPM-B ceiling. But this is only due to the fact that the model is not really defined outside the planning situation.

Or put differently: You need to make arbitrary assumptions (not based on the depth profile and the gas you are breathing) to come up with a VPM-B ceiling. Which, at least for me, doesn’t strengthen my believe into this model.

PS: I am planning to be at the Boot dive show in Düsseldorf on Friday January 26th. If you happen to be there as well, please let me know and we can shake hands!

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Ich stimme zu.