NASA engineer

A mini sub made from cheap parts could change underwater exploration

The OpenROV submersible remote controlled vehicle sits in front of its control camera monitor, drying off. 
Photo Brian Lam

By Brian Lam - The New York Times Bits

This month, NASA engineer Eric Stackpole hiked to a spot in Trinity County, east of California’s rough Bigfoot country.

Nestled at the base of a hill of loose rock, peppered by red and purple wildflowers, is Hall City Cave.

For part of the winter the cave is infested with large spiders, but is mostly flooded year-round. Locals whisper the cave’s deep pools hold a cache of stolen gold, but Mr. Stackpole isn’t here to look for treasure.

He had, under his arm, what might appear to be a clunky toy blue submarine about the size of a lunchbox.

The machine is the latest prototype of the OpenROV–an open-source, remotely operated vehicle that could map the cave in 3D using software from Autodesk and collect water in places too tight for a diver to go.

It could change the future of ocean exploration. For now, it is exploring caves because it can only go down 100 meters.

But it holds promise because it is cheap, links to a laptop, and is available to a large number of researchers for experimentation.

Indeed, the OpenROV team hopes to start taking orders for OpenROV kits on the crowd sourced project site, Kickstarter.

Going for $750, the kits include laser cut plastic parts and all the electronics necessary to build an OpenROV.

(Users will have to bring their own laptops to view the onboard video feed and control the machine. They’ll also have to supply their own C-cell batteries which power the sub.)

The subs are expected to be available by the end of summer. OpenROV is nothing like James Cameron’s submarine that took him to the bottom of the ocean in March. Mr. Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger was fitted with 3-D cameras that could withstand 16,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and was shaped like a bomb so it could swiftly plunge into the depths.

Nor is OpenROV like the famous submarine, Alvin, that explored the Titanic in 1986, with its titanium cockpit and its operating cost of around $55,000 a day. Mr. Stackpole can’t afford exotic alloys or custom technology for his little sub.

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