Eric Stackpole’s passion for discovery was originally directed toward outer space. As a mechanical engineering student at San Jose State University in 2007, he founded a campus club devoted to building mini satellites. That landed him a job at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which led to an emphasis on robotics in graduate school.
One day in 2010, Stackpole’s shoe squeaked on a tile floor, reminding him of the “ping” made by sonar; in his mind’s eye he saw the lights of a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) vanishing into deep, dark water. Inspired, he began to develop a cheap, camera-enabled mini submersible. He soon realized that Earth has an environment as strange as anything beyond the atmosphere. “There’s this mysterious underwater world, a lot like space,” he says. “You can move in three dimensions; the equipment has to be rugged. And there are aliens down there—creatures we’ve never seen before.”
Stackpole’s sub is simple and cheap by marine science standards; it weighs 5.5 pounds and costs around $500 in mostly off-the-shelf parts. Two onboard battery packs provide about 1.5 hours of runtime. The vessel is designed to descend to 330 feet, too deep for scientific divers. That makes it a rich zone for observation—or, as Stackpole puts it, “armchair adventures and daily discovery.”
The operator controls the ROV using either a keyboard or a USB game controller, and images are beamed to the surface over a tether plugged into a computer’s Ethernet port. The sub can carry lightweight payloads, such as sensors or water samplers, which also makes it a valuable instrument for environmental monitoring.
Through mutual acquaintances, Stack-pole met David Lang, a community manager for a web startup. Lang had once run a Berkeley, California, sailing school, and the two quickly bonded. With an ROV, they agreed, anyone could probe underwater realms—especially anyone willing to solder, wire, and glue together a personal mini sub based on Stackpole’s plans.
They envisioned a DIY community of professionals and amateurs, collaborating on robotic exploration for fun and science. Enthusiastic to foster it, they made the ROV open source, so anyone could improve upon its design and programming. They also started a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund the assembly and distribution of a couple dozen kits. Just two hours after launch, they had hit their $20,000 target; a month later they’d raised $111,622 and taken more than 100 orders. Kits began shipping to Kickstarter backers this fall, and the pair plan to set up an online store early next year.
The sub, now dubbed OpenROV, made its inaugural trip into Hall City Cave, a partially flooded cavern in California, last January, followed by a dive to the Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys in June. Stackpole is now in Antarctica working on a science team; he’s hoping to send Lang images from OpenROV’s first voyage at the South Pole.
--Emily J. Gertz