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The Underwater Revolution Is at Hand

There’s a new way to explore the deep sea, and it’s cheaper, easier, and more accessible than ever. Robots are part of it, but a worldwide team of makers is the real key.

Picture of OpenROV

The latest OpenROV is a completely redesigned model called Trident. Sleeker, faster, and more maneuverable than the boxier early forms, its designers say piloting it via game controller makes it feel like you’re flying through the water with it.

Photograph by Patrick Webster

Before 2012, the world of remote submarine exploration was a small one. Each year, just a few researchers were able to explore a few sites at enormous cost and risk. Then David Lang and Eric Stockpile launched OpenROV, an inexpensive, open-source, easily hackable underwater rover.

This small, remotely operated robot, capable of being built and tinkered with by almost anyone who has mastered the art of following IKEA instructions, has opened up the underwater world like never before, and created a uniquely engaged international community of explorers and inventors.

Capable of exploring at a depth of 100 meters (approximately 328 feet) for up to two hours, the OpenROV goes deeper than most scuba divers can, at a price and ease-of-use that no conventional sub can match. Curious amateurs, students, and nearly every ocean researcher rejoices. Any exploration in the first approximately 101 meters (330 feet) of a body of water can now be tried for little more than the price of the plane ticket to get there. You could budget one into your next vacation.

David Lang is now a 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and TED Senior Fellow. People often think of him as primarily an explorer, inventor, or entrepreneur, but he sees what he’s doing quite differently. For David, it’s all about that community.

“You don’t need a National Science Foundation grant to do this. You just need a group of friends and something you want to do.”

—David Lang

To get OpenROV afloat, so to speak, David and Eric had taken to the fundraising site Kickstarter. Many of the financial backers were designers and ocean researchers themselves, and soon became full collaborators in the project, participating in the design and testing of the little robots at a site now called OpenExplorer.com.

Some of that crew are now full-time employees. This has been the real key to their success: more brains, more hands, more tests, more ideas. With users and designers in constant open communication, OpenROV’s evolution is in hyperdrive.

David and the team are now testing “Trident,” the completely redesigned third generation underwater drone that has come out of two years of community feedback and innovations, and a relentless pursuit of new possibilities in affordable, open-access underwater exploration.

While the earlier forms with their cube-like profiles and outstretched “arms” looked like miniature versions of ALVIN, the sub used to explore Titanic, the new model looks like a sentient Xbox. That’s maybe not a coincidence, seeing as you can steer your Trident with a game controller.

Gliding through the water, pitching up and down, or streaking along in a straight line, it does all the original OpenROV could do, but it’s sleeker, faster, and more maneuverable. It’s the kind of thing that looks like it should have taken many years, not two, and millions, not thousands, of dollars to develop.

But as David Lang has said, “You don’t need a National Science Foundation grant to do this. You just need a group of friends and something you want to do.”

What’ll that be for you?

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