National Geographic
Emerging Explorer

David Lang

Maker and Writer

Picture of David Lang

Photograph by Ryan Lash

How to plumb the sea’s mysteries? Build an army of underwater robots.

David Lang grew up “landlocked” in Minnesota and was 23 years old when he quit his office job to go sailing. He moved to San Francisco and spent the next five years on the water, managing a sailing school and leading trips around the world.

His sense of adventure and curiosity eventually led him to San Francisco’s world of startups and the maker movement, through which he met Eric Stackpole, an engineer and his co-founder of OpenROV (the ROV stands for remotely operated vehicle). Through nearly 500 backers on the funding site Kickstarter, they aim to distribute low-cost underwater robots to a network of citizen ocean explorers. Lang says his team is “dangerously close” to their original goal of democratizing exploration.

Beyond OpenROV, Lang has a vision to build a connected community of amateur adventurers. At OpenExplorer, a “digital field journal,” he’s created a platform for anyone—robot aficionados or not—who wants to plan and chronicle expeditions around the world. —By Christina Nunez

“We didn’t find any gold, but we found this bigger treasure, which was all of these people—this community of people who believe in this whole dream.”

—David Lang

Your career in robots began with a search for gold. Tell us more about that.

There were rumors of treasure and gold in this old limestone cave from the days of the gold rush, a story of this gold mining operation robbery. All these treasure hunters had gone to this cave and no one had been able to get to the bottom to see if there was anything there. Eric just told me this really wonderful story, and I was so captivated by his telling of it and that sense of adventure.

As soon as I met Eric, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that and to help that grow into something bigger than just that little cave expedition. We created this website called openROV. We started asking people for help and to be a part of this bigger dream of having these low-cost underwater robots. That was slow at first, but we just picked people up here and there, and eventually it just kind of took off.

We didn’t find any gold, but we found this bigger treasure, which was all of these people—this community of people who believe in this whole dream. That’s actually a far more valuable thing to discover.


Are there certain things, from an underwater exploration perspective, that you hope will become more clear or be discovered as a part of this?

The outcomes are less important to me. Like numbers of new species discovered, number of phenomena—all that stuff is fine, and I think it will come. What’s really important to me is just people getting up to the starting line. More people getting that enthusiasm, building this confidence to start exploring and to understand that we are living in this really amazing time and that you do have permission to go on an adventure with your friends. To really be on the edge of what humans know about, and know how to do. I want more people to feel that.

The way we explore and understand our ocean is so closely tied to technology and the tools we have to do so, and those tools really haven't changed for a while. Underwater robots and ROVs have been around for over 20 years, but they’ve been tools that are so limited [in terms of access]. We’re not just building single, one-off devices. We’re building this network and this community. ... It’s our global community of ocean explorers, and they’re all connected to the Internet. I think we’re at the very beginning of this next chapter.


Do you see these being deployed exclusively underwater? Are there other applications for this?

I think the idea of connected exploration is really big, and I think the applications for that are really broad. But right now that’s our focus, building these underwater drones, because the underwater environment is uniquely challenging and that’s what we are set up to begin with. [The ocean is] dark, it’s mysterious, it’s a majority of our planet, and we still have just a small idea of how the whole system works and fits together. So I think it’s a perfect place to introduce this idea of connected exploration, to get people excited about participating in discovery and conservation and monitoring.

Picture of OpenROV

Photograph by Patrick Webster

It seems like you have a propensity to dive into stuff, literally, where you really have no experience. I’m curious what makes you unafraid to take on these things where you have to learn on the fly. Is there something about that that appeals to you?

Yeah, I do have a long history of doing things that I’m wildly unqualified for. I just love being in those moments where there’s too much to learn. Also I just like being on the edge of what I think is possible for myself. These things have all been crazy, but they’ve been the perfect flavor of crazy. Right in that sweet spot of, so crazy it just might work. I think that’s where I operate the best.


How do you see this evolving for you, balancing the desire to be outside and exploring versus making, which often involves being inside?

I’m just a storyteller at heart. l love big stories—not, like, breaking news, but really deep stories that connect us to our place in the world and our place in time. I’ve been really fortunate to meet Eric. I think that’s the luckiest thing that happened to me in my life, and I feel a little guilty that it’s me being acknowledged here, because it really is such a team effort.

I don’t want to get far away from the storytelling. If that involves talking about what we’re building, then I’m going to write about that. I wrote a book called Zero to Maker, and it was all about what we’re building. Frankly, that was more interesting than being out in the field and making any discoveries, because we were right on the edge of what people thought was possible. If that involves going out in the field and working on stuff, studying, and learning, that’s great. I’m excited to do it. But if that involves being in a lab and working with people and figuring out where the edge is, then that’s fine too. I just like being on the edge.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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