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Just like on TV: Ocean exploration for the masses

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 3:34pm
Allegra Sparta, Editorial Intern

Imagine upwards of eight tons pressing down on your body as you make the descent into the icy waters of the deepest parts of the ocean. The human body isn’t meant to withstand that sort of pressure, so we must utilize devices like the OpenROV to get our exploration fix if we don’t happen to have millions of dollars on hand for more sophisticated equipment. Co-creator of the OpenROV David Lang explains that the thought process for potential novice researchers sounds a bit like, “Oh, well, you know… that's something that professional scientists do, that National Geographic explorers do. That's not something that I get to do.” Lang is determined to convince people that it is indeed possible for them to perform research similar to the work done on popular science networks like The Discovery Channel or National Geographic. 

The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” has millions of viewers tuning in, and this number is on the rise each year the specials continue. What is the reason for its popularity? Bloody shark attacks are only shocking for so long until viewers crave something deeper. It is evident that humans have a huge interest in the ocean and aquatic life. The vastness of the ocean and the amount of unexplored area and undocumented creatures presents it with an air of mystery and danger that viewers find intriguing. It is simply cheaper (and safer) to vicariously explore the depths on a television screen.

Filmmaker James Cameron travelled nearly 7 miles into the Mariana Trench, settling in a trough called the Challenger Deep, in his $8 million dollar submarine. This single-occupant 24-foot-long vessel contains a personal space just 43 inches wide. For Cameron, cramped quarters were merely a tiny sacrifice for the opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, he documented his trip and collected footage and data to be made available to the public, but is that really enough to satiate the population’s growing thirst for explanations of the ocean’s mysteries?

For inventors Eric Stackpole and David Lang, watching explorers with huge budgets traverse the ocean floor was not adequate. Both share a passion for science and exploring the uncharted and hope that others might feel the same. This passion led to the creation of the OpenROV, a tiny submersible device that offers its users a chance to participate, on a smaller scale, with trained biologists, casting aside the notion that ocean exploration is just for the folks at National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. At only $849 for a kit, people can experience a snippet of what Cameron discovered in his multi-million dollar craft.

This robot is about the size of a toaster and is controlled through the user’s laptop. The OpenROV is capable of exploring depths up to 100 meters, or about 328 feet. It has a video camera attached to it, allowing the operator access to a live feed. Stackpole and Lang’s invention offers a simple, fun, and relatively cheap way to become involved in oceanography. While the duo recognizes that the technology used is somewhat primitive in comparison with the larger, higher-budget endeavors, they stress the importance of this simple, beginning point as it is vital for fostering that initial interest. After all, everyone has to start somewhere. 

A key aspect of the OpenROV project is its accessibility and its customizable nature. The “open” part of the robot’s name is vital to the business plan the creators have established. They encourage communication among users of their product, setting up online forums so these ocean aficionados and aspiring scientists can troubleshoot and discuss improvements and modifications together. For the creative pair, the results of their new invention have been ideal. If donations continue to pour in and the number of sales continue to rise, the OpenROV might not be the last aquatic vessel that Stackpole and Lang introduce into the market.

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