These Robots Let Everyone Explore the Oceans

The OpenROV project builds cheap, easy-to-use underwater drones so anyone can become a Sylvia Earle and help save the seas.
(Photo: OpenROV)
Sep 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Just 5 percent of the world’s oceans have been explored and mapped. Imagine if all of the United States except for California and Vermont was completely unknown. That’s a whole lot of wilderness. But exploring the seas has long been an expensive and often dangerous endeavor.

Enter the robots.

David Lang and Eric Stackpole started building a rudimentary aquatic drone four years ago because they heard rumors of a cache of gold sunk in a lake in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. They built their little swimming robot in a garage and shared the hardware process and assorted coding infrastructure online. Before long, a thriving community of makers and ocean enthusiasts had congregated around the OpenROV project—building their own from kits Lang and Stackpole assembled and shipped—and sharing their expeditions at openexplorer.com.

As climate change accelerates the acidification of the ocean that is destroying coral reefs and the marine life that depend on them, projects like OpenROV give scientists and everyday citizens powerful tools to explore and conduct research.

Suddenly, you don’t need to be a James Cameron or a Jacques Cousteau to explore beneath the waves. Low-cost, easily operated drones can accomplish what has long required big budgets and specialized expertise. Now the OpenROV team has announced the Trident, its latest, most sophisticated drone. Within days, it raised more than half a million dollars on Kickstarter, more than 10 times the target, and there are still 39 days left in the campaign.

(Photo: OpenROV)

The sleek Trident is about the size of a lunch box, weighs less than seven pounds, and is tethered to the operator on the surface, who pilots the robot with a smartphone or a laptop. It’s faster and far more nimble than earlier OpenROVs, mimicking the flying agility of an aerial drone. The onboard high-definition camera sends live video to the surface and can run a lawnmower pattern that allows it to create 3-D models of its surroundings. The Trident will sell for $,1200, which isn’t spare change but is a far cry from the six-figure cost of the equipment once necessary for capturing such images. Sylvia Earle, the legendary oceanographer and National Geographic explorer in residence, is a fan.

“With aerial drones we get a different perspective on things we know are there, but with this we’re going to new places—places where humans have never been,” said Lang.

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While earlier OpenROV models required soldering and electronics know-how, the Trident is ocean-ready out of the box. Lang is particularly excited by the education and citizen science applications. “You don’t need a research grant to buy an underwater robot anymore,” he said. “People are starting to ask really interesting questions, and they aren’t necessarily scientists.”

There’s Darcy Paulin in Vancouver, British Columbia, who runs a game shop during the week and on weekends takes his OpenROV offshore to conduct research on the glass sponge reefs of southern Howe Sound. Another OpenROV has cruised the bottom of Walden Pond and will soon peer into the depths of a massive lagoon in Rio de Janeiro. The drones have checked fishery health in the Chesapeake Bay and surveyed marine trash in Puget Sound. “It’s not even so important what they find,” said Lang, “but that there are folks out there actually looking.”

Deep-sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler, a visiting scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, led a group of students equipped with OpenROVs to Papua New Guinea last year. “As a way of getting people into the field, the benefits are incalculable,” he said. “It opens up ocean ecosystems to students that wouldn't otherwise have access. As the science funding climate is in decline, getting low-cost alternatives into the hands of researchers and conservation workers is imperative to continuing to monitor our marine ecosystems.”

OpenROV community members—as well as Lang—responded to the recent El Refugio oil spill off the California coast, deploying the drones to assess the magnitude of the spill. “I’d never seen an oil spill in person,” said Lang. “I realized how we treat ocean issues is this very alarmist, reactionary narrative, but what we need to do is get people involved on an everyday basis and give people the tools to broadcast what is going on at all times.”

Lang and Stackpole never found that gold in the lake. But what they’ve built could mark a shift in ocean awareness—a powerful tool for average, curious people to better understand the marine environment. “The more eyes there are in the ocean, the better off the ocean will be,” said Thaler.