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OpenROV Underwater Robot: A Year of Open Source Progress

By Wesley Fenlon

Despite its success in early 2013, OpenROV has come a long way since last May's Maker Faire. Co-founder Eric Stackpole talks about refining his sub-$1000 submersible and where it's going this year.

For a robot the size of a shoebox, OpenROV has made quite a splash in the submersible community in the past year. Just after MakerFaire 2012, where we saw OpenROV for the first time, it and its creator Eric Stackpole showed up in the New York Times along with a bold proclamation about the open source project: "It could change the future of ocean exploration."

Photo credit: NASA

Those weren't Stackpole's words, but you can bet he believes them--his quest for a sub-$1000 exploration bot recently landed him on the cover of Make Magazine, and OpenROV was back at this year's Maker Faire. Last August, Stackpole and his partner David Lang raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter for the OpenROV. What's surprising, considering how successful OpenROV was in 2012, is just how far the ROV has advanced in the past year.

"Even when we were doing that expedition to the Hall City Cave that ended up in the Times, we didn't really have a robot that was fully functional," says Stackpole at Maker Faire 2013. "You know, this is a maker product. It was on its way, there were some things that could work. We could drive it around, but the video feed wasn't reliable. Now we're at a point where we have everything we had dreamed of. Live video streaming, we can do high definition, it's going up to a computer. It's functional. This is the part where it really gets exciting. This is where we're going to start exploring, really exploring, places that haven't been seen before."

Photo credit: Make

Stackpole is a fountain of enthusiasm, but he's earnest when he says things like "this is the part where it really gets exciting," he means it. His obsession with ocean exploration came while he worked at NASA as a mechanical engineer, and last year he reduced his hours to devote more time to OpenROV.

Just in the past few months, the OpenROV project has made a major breakthrough.

This breakthrough didn't come from either Stackpole and OpenROV co-founder David Lang--OpenROV has its own maker community of hardware and software tinkerers and experts to thank for that. One member, Walt Holm, was talking to Stackpole about improving bandwidth to the OpenROV through its tether, which carries data back and forth between the submersible and a connected laptop. They wanted to keep the tether thin so the OpenROV would stay mobile, but they had to keep it cheap, too. Holm, an electrical engineer, found the perfect off-the-shelf solution.

"We had been looking at these things called home plug adapters which...plug into your wall in your house and allow you to talk Ethernet through your power," Stackpole says. "The problem with that is you don't want to send powerline types of electricity through water. That's dangerous. So we were fantasizing about if there were some way you could communicate those kinds of bandwidths without having to send 120 volt AC through the water. And it turns out there's a specific board that just kind of by chance we came across where those are two separate pieces of electronics. You can isolate one, and without sending the power you can still get 200 megabits of data."

Even as the robot has gotten more advanced over the past year, the price has stayed the same.

Thanks to its reliance on off-the-shelf parts, the OpenROV costs less than $1000 to put together. Anyone can buy a kit for $850, but everything is open source, which means the OpenROV website also lists an entire bill of materials and has thorough documentation to help people source and assemble ROVs of their own. Even as the robot has gotten more advanced over the past year, the price has stayed the same, thanks to Stackpole and others finding cheaper alternative parts and better deals.

The community has likewise contributed to OpenROV's software, which Stackpole says has improved enormously over the past year. They're currently working on the biggest addition to the open source code yet: Internet control.

"This is what I'm excited about us hopefully talking about at next Maker Faire," Stackpole says. "And to me that's really where we're going to round the corner. Internet control means you can control an ROV in Barbados from, I don't know, Taiwan. You can control an ROV anywhere in the world."

Like most ROVs, the OpenROV will still be tethered--Stackpole explains that radio waves don't travel well enough through water for wireless control, especially when you're dealing with HD video. But Internet-based control is the kind of idea science teachers will fall head-over-heels for. OpenROV may not drag kids away from video games, but real time exploration in science class? From thousands of mile away? Who wouldn't find that more interesting than a worksheet?

Stackpole practically gushes over the idea.

"There's so much potential there. Oh my god, it'd be so cool! We could go on expeditions where this is something you want to watch on the Discovery channel... But what happens if in addition to being able to view this, you have the ability to be able to say, turn left, go forward, I want to look at what's behind that rock. This is an unprecedented amount of exploration that we can do. It's like playing a video game but it's real life. That to me seems like this huge untapped potential."

The OpenROV community is currently working on the biggest addition to the open source code yet: Internet control.

Stackpole obviously isn't alone in his enthusiasm--after asking for $20,000 on Kickstarter, OpenROV eventually raked in $90,000 more than that. Their Kickstarter experience mimics what other makers have gone through: success, gratification, and far more work than expected. It was intimidating, Stackpole says, because they had to assemble and test 20 OpenROVs to ship out to backers, each with their own little quirks in software and hardware that had to be tweaked and stamped out. But they did it.

If OpenROV's community succeeds in enabling Internet-based control, it'll be a huge step towards making the ROV a cheap and versatile tool for explorers. The bot still lacks heading and depth navigation and relies primarily on the video feed from its 1080p webcam, but that could change by the time next year's Maker Faire rolls around. Stackpole thinks they can add those features economically and keep the cost under $1000.

That data will be enormously valuable when explorers start piloting the robot to depths as low as 100 meters, which OpenROV has been successfully tested at. As excited as he is talking about the advances OpenROV has made over the past year, Eric's just as passionate about where it's going. Watch his short talk about the project from Maker Faire 2013 if you want to catch the enthusiasm.