Eric Stackpole is a NASA engineer and avid outdoorsman. Normally his passions don’t intersect, but this is one of those rare times.
He is the chief designer of a cheap, portable underwater ROV that could change the way we explore our oceans. And he wants to make it so cheap and easy to build that anyone can do it.
The device in question is the OpenROV, a small, lasercut contraption powered by several C-cells, a small, cheap computer and a webcam. Right now the price per vehicle is hovering around $500-$600, depending on how good a deal you get on the parts, but as with all open source hardware projects, further development will likely drastically reduce the price. Or you can buy a kit for $750 and support the project, once the Kickstarter gets going. That will also net you lasercut parts for your vehicle.
The ROV will be controlled by a laptop through a web browser. Theoretically, it can be steered from anywhere in the world, as long as there is a computer tethered to it on-site.
Most ROV’s cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to buy. The vehicle that took James Cameron down to Challenger Deep cost $55,000 in daily operating costs alone. That makes underwater ROV something that very few interested amateurs can break into, which is likely holding oceanography back. Stackpole wants to change this.
Right now the rover can only dive to 100 meters. But considering that its closest competition, a commercial ROV called the Videoray, retails for $10,000 and can only dive to 76 meters, that isn’t too terrible.
And the project is seeing some traction among the scientific community, too. Oceanography has been hit hard by the recession, and money for oceanographic research has largely dried up. Already NASA is planning on using the small sub at the Aquarius Reef base, one of the only underwater research facilities left in the world.