By Christian Hernandez
When James Cameron plunged to the bottom of the Marina Trench in his sleek, $8 million submarine, it heralded a new age of underwater exploration. But the deep sea isn’t the only aquatic frontier left to explore. Around the world, there are countless undersea caves, flooded mine shafts and other underwater tight spots that have remained off limits to divers because they’re too narrow or dangerous to navigate. And happily, the right craft for the job probably isn’t a multi-million-dollar submersible, but something so accessible you can make it yourself.
“Our goal is to get as many OpenROVs out into the world as we can,” said David Lang, the co-founder of a new underwater robot (or “ROV,” remotely operated vehicle). He’s also the facilitator of a 700-member online community of professional ocean engineers and hobbyists who are collaborating to make the robot better (the “Open” part of the project’s name). To meet their goal of robotic ubiquity, Lang and his partner, Eric Stackpole, share the prototype plans on their website and will soon sell out-of-the-box OpenROV kits. (Make a big donation to the project on their Kickstarter page and they’ll send you one of the first kits available.)
Clearly, Lang and Stackpole are driven by the unique opportunity to develop a new technology that could change the future of underwater exploration. But theirs is also an older, more familiar quest: a hunt for gold.
Specifically, they’re after a legendary bounty of golden nuggets in the hills of Northern California. This spring, Lang and a bunch of friends hiked to a flooded gold mine where the treasure is said to remain sunken and hidden. They found no treasure, but instead several ways to improve the ROV. When he got back Lang told me about the expedition and shared these photos.
“About nine months ago, I was working in an office. The company I was working for ran out of money so I lost my job. But then I had this epiphany: I really wanted to start making things with my hands. I’ve spent the last nine months re-skilling myself — taking welding classes, learning how to use laser cutters and 3D printers — and writing about it for MAKE Magazine. Part of that process has been teaming up with Eric and working on this OpenROV project.
“Growing up in Humboldt County, Eric heard about the story of an underwater cave in Northern California and rumors of gold at the bottom of it. When we first met, Eric told me the story and I was captivated. We found as much information as he could online and then went up there and explored before we had the robot. We walked through the hills and found the cave and the underwater portion, just like we heard in the stories. It was pretty exciting, because that story of gold was one of the reasons we started the project.
“The ROV shines a light and then live video comes back. It’s tricky to see. Something we’re still developing is a compass heading and depth sensor. That’s really important because it’s hard to orient yourself underwater with the live video, until you have those sensors. That’s something for the open community to develop.
“We started doing this for fun, but we quickly found a lot of other people had different uses for this type of thing. We hear a lot from people who have places they really want to explore; we hear from scientists who have studies they want to conduct. One of the important aspects of the OpenROV design is that we’ve left this payload module — a space on the ROV that is specifically designed for people to add and modify. They can add a robotic arm or a pH sensor or a GoPro camera. Whatever tool they need they can modify the ROV to do that.
“I never expected to really find gold. For me, the joy was always in the process of learning how to build the robot. And to have a dream to build this open-source underwater community of people who have other ideas. This was the first story, but it’s really not the only story. Someone was just telling us about an underwater cavern in Death Valley where there’s this really rare species of fish. No divers have been in this area of the cavern, so we’re thinking about bringing the ROV there. There are all of these new and exciting places to explore — that’s what keeps us going.”
All photos courtesy of Open ROV.
Youth Radio Investigates is an NSF-supported science reporting series in which young journalists collect and analyze original data with professional scientists, and then tell unexpected stories about what they discover. For more Youth Radio Investigates stories on Turnstyle News, a project of Youth Radio, check out: