OpenROV co-founder Eric Stackpole has always been fascinated by telerobotics, the use of semi-autonomous robots controlled by the user from a distance, so for him his company’s Trident underwater drone is a dream product. In college he built two robots that could roam around his university’s engineering building going to classes for him (though they often wound up getting locked in bathrooms by wisecracking classmates); now his company builds an underwater vehicle capable of searching a shipwreck from the 19th century submerged at 400 meters, delivering back to its operators a high-quality, low-latency video stream of what it finds.
OpenROV the concept was probably lurking in Stackpole’s imagination for years; OpenROV the company had its beginnings with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, when it was selling kits that users could assemble to build their own underwater ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). Given access to new technology that was highly capable but still low cost, Stackpole believed, it had become possible to build a community around vehicles like theirs with which users could explore parts of the world rarely seen before, if ever. “I was going to grad school and working on mechanisms for spacecraft at the NASA Ames Research Center,” says Stackpole, “when I realized that these ROVs are things that you don’t need a rocket to use. You can just go to the shoreline and explore the same sorts of dark, mysterious places that feel very much like outer space.”
For Trident, OpenROV did extensive research and development to even arrive at a working prototype that could effectively let users explore the ocean. They used computer-aided design and 3D printing and experimented with various concepts, facing numerous challenges along the way. For example, at its maximum depth their vehicle will face nearly 12,000 pounds of pressure, and yet it still needs to be able to deliver high quality video back to its operators despite the extreme conditions. Additionally, OpenROV’s vehicles needed sophisticated and highly capable electric speed controllers (ESCs) that can provide more precise control over the vehicle’s motion than you might find on a vehicle like a quadcopter.
element14 has been intimately involved with OpenROV during its journey in coming to market with Trident. Their consumer kits use the Beaglebone Black, and the Trident is powered by a custom Raspberry Pi, both provided by element14. Says Stackpole: “We needed to fit everything into a very small package, so we needed a version of the Raspberry Pi that didn’t have the headers, USB ports, Ethernet jack, and some other large components, so they worked with us to make a stripped-down version that’s very thin … we were able to ask the [element14] team what was possible, instead of them just telling us what was available and those are the only options.” Says element14's Hari Kalyanaraman: “OpenROV is developing a fast, affordable drone that can make anyone an underwater explorer. The Trident just 'flies' through water. We are thrilled to collaborate with OpenROV in productizing their drone.”
Though the Trident is not yet on the market, it’s already been put to work in the kinds of exploring applications that OpenROV intends for its community to take up once it’s released. Eric Cheng, a photographer who specializes in underwater and aerial images, took a Trident to the western coast of Australia and flew the unit alongside killer whales, and the company themselves shot this gorgeous footage with their creation in Hawaii:
The Trident release is obviously OpenROV’s biggest focus at the moment, but like all startups they’re always looking to the future. Explains Stackpole: “We want to work on expanding and democratizing exploration. We want [users] to be able to add accessories to Trident, so you can add grip arms, water samplers, or external lights, things like that. We want to create a community around what you can do with [OpenROV vehicles] … and we always encourage people who are interested in our products to go on our forums at openrov.com and start talking about the ideas they have.”
OpenROV’s products are poised to take advantage of future tech as well. “I’m most excited about technology that has to do with machine learning and computer vision,” says Stackpole. “It’s really remarkable to me what capabilities a regular camera can have if its data is processed the right way. I’m looking forward to what our vehicles will be able to do in the future by adopting these machine learning algorithms.”
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