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Exploration to Conservation Through Underwater Robotics

Some of the strongest validation that conservationists get towards the need to protect a certain area comes directly as a result of exploration of that area. Through exploratory expeditions, we get to see the magnificence and scientific significance that these places have to offer. This provides the justification behind many of the political and economic decisions that are made as a result of any conservation project. This is partly why conservation and exploration have always felt so at home together at the National Geographic Society and why so many of my fellow Explorers are conservationists at their very core. If you look at the work of Enric Sala’s Pristine Seas Initiative or what Sylvia Earle focuses on through the Mission Blue Hope Spots, they both stress on the importance of exploration and documentation as a prerequisite for conservation.

World-class ROVs on the E/V Nautilus. Photo: Shah Selbe
World-class ROVs on the E/V Nautilus. Photo: Shah Selbe

This resonates with us because it is part of human nature to be inquisitive and explore; it has always been a deep desire of people to be explorers. As you look back throughout history, humanity has always driven to venture into the unknown. While there were generally additional complementary incentives (economic or political) behind this exploration, these trailblazers have always been admired by the public. Unfortunately, these grand exploration efforts are typically limited as a result of the astronomical costs traditionally associated with them. We famously know less about the bottom of our oceans than the surface of the moon; a consequence largely driven by the costs associated with undersea exploration. Costs of a scientific research vessel can exceed $50,000 USD per day and underwater robotic exploration vehicles, typically called ROVs (remotely operated vehicle), costs range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions per submersible. At those rates, one can clearly see why exploration has been limited. However, much like we have seen in the area of robotic flight, this area of underwater exploration is poised to change.

One of the most promising agents of that change is OpenROV, the open-source underwater robot that has gathered the following of an active and passionate global community. This is the brainchild of Eric Stackpole and David Lang, who began their journey much like many startups: in a Bay Area garage. The cofounders originally created the DIY underwater robot to explore an underwater cave with rumors of lost gold. I first heard about OpenROV as a result of their successful Kickstarter campaign. Their efforts, along with DIY Drones and Arduino, are seen as success stories in the world of open hardware. I always admired the efforts of David and Eric to bring down the cost of using ROVs to something reasonable. There will always be the need for the big expensive systems to help us reach our most remote areas. The OpenROV fills the need for a solution that is more right-sized for the majority of people out there. This low-cost appropriate technology approach resonated with me because it mirrors the principles behind the work that I do with conservation technology.

The OpenROV v2.7, latest open source underwater robot. Photo: OpenROV
The OpenROV v2.7, latest open source underwater robot. Photo: OpenROV

They recently released the latest version of the OpenROV, the v2.7. It is a pretty capable little robot, with better maneuverability, streaming HD video back to the surface, and brighter LEDs and laser scaling and distance measurement. The small size (30cm long x 20cm wide x 15cm high) and weight (2.6kg) means you can fit it in a backpack or carry it on a plane. It can dive 100 meters and explore on a tether up to 300 meters long for up to 3 hours of charge time. That is pretty impressive capability for something that you can plug into a laptop and drive from your favorite web browser.

An OpenROVv2.7 in the field, preparing for it's dive. Photo: OpenROV
An OpenROVv2.7 in the field, preparing for it’s dive. Photo: OpenROV

To help enable this exploration to anyone with the desire to do so, they launched OpenExplorer. This tool seeks to create a platform for stories of exploration, science, and education for the next generation of citizen explorer. There are some pretty fascinating expeditions already underway on the website. TED Fellow Asha de Vos will be using it to save blue whales from death by ship-strike. Norwegian explorers will make use of an OpenROV to measure marine debris along the coastline. Young Explorer and National Geographic grantee Erika Bergman, created underwater robotic camps to get young girls excited about engineering and exploration. Another group of explorers plans to use them to map supra-glacial lakes in Nepal. These are just a few examples of the interesting ideas that people come up with, once they have access to the tools necessary to do so. This is an exciting opportunity to create citizen explorers out of us all and in an area that needs more exploration badly: the world underneath the surface of the water.

The OpenROV test tank in their lab in Berkeley, CA. Photo: Shah Selbe
The OpenROV test tank in their lab in Berkeley, CA. Photo: Shah Selbe

Which is why I was excited when David invited me up to the OpenROV labs in Berkeley, CA to talk about ways in which we could collaborate. Outside of brainstorming ideas about conservation technology with Erika Bergman and David, we spoke specifically how my National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions funded SoarOcean project could support some work that was going on OpenExplorer. In Northern California, there is a very unique team of unpaid professionals assembled and trained for the purpose of disentangling whales from fishing gear and other marine debris (only a task that professionals should attempt). They operate under the authority of NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and are on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Up to 80% of studied whale populations show signs of entanglement. A rescue can take anywhere from a few hours to weeks depending on the complications surrounding it and the state of the whale. Prior to attempting any removal of the debris, an assessment based on video and photos must be made. This is where OpenROV and SoarOcean can help. By providing the robotic means of underwater and aerial assessments, the team can better plan their approach and removal of the debris without further hurting or stressing the whale. The Whale Entanglement Team now has an OpenROV v2.7 and an Iris+, thanks to the support from OpenROV and 3DRobotics. Follow along on their OpenExplorer page to watch as these efforts progress.

The Okavango Wilderness Project, a collaboration between myself and three other Explorers, also plans to make use of the OpenROV v2.7 on our 2015 expedition. We are traveling back to the Okavango Delta this year to deploy some of my sensor platforms and perform the wildlife surveys under the leadership of Steve Boyes. The OpenROV will allow us the opportunity to explore a part of the Delta far too dangerous for us to enter, the crocodile- and hippopotamus-riddled underwater areas. Follow along with us through our twitter: @IntoTheOkavango.

One of the many angry Hippos we encountered during #Okavango14. Photo: Shah Selbe
One of the many angry Hippos we encountered during #Okavango14. Photo: Shah Selbe

I have said this before, but we are living in inspiring times. Technology continues to get cheaper and more accessible in ways that will allow us to successfully protect, explore, communicate, and advocate for critical conservation and humanitarian causes all over the world. The maker movement has created an opportunity for innovation to spread to kitchen tables, libraries, and classrooms everywhere. The barriers that previously kept us from taking action are quickly disappearing. Anyone reading this can be an explorer. If you’ve always dreamt of going on an expedition, head over to OpenExplorer and propose your own. We have more opportunity than ever before and can use all the help we can get. The more we can understand about this planet and its unexplored areas, the better we can protect it for future generations.

Comments

  1. Kathi
    December 11, 2014, 11:10 am

    Great work by all! Thank you!