David Lang wants to make investigating the mysteries of the ocean accessible to anyone curious and adventurous enough to dive deep. Here, the co-founder of OpenROV — a community of citizen ocean explorers and creators of low-cost underwater robots — recounts his blistering journey from office job to fledgling maker to inventor of a robot that could revolutionize ocean exploration, education and research. And, he tells us about his newly launched book, Zero to Maker, a how-to guide for makers everywhere.
You started out on the OpenROV adventure after you lost a desk job. How did you make the leap from that to creating open source underwater robots?
Just over two years ago, I was working for this startup, writing emails, basically. When it went under, I decided to move to San Francisco because I was dating a woman up here at the time. But I also really wanted to start making stuff. I had met a carpenter, and I thought, “You can’t take carpentry away from this guy. You can’t fire him from this. It’s a skill, and it’s real.” I wanted something like that in my life.
So my goal was simple: making things. I started taking these woodshop classes and welding, and then I got into 3D printing, laser cutting.
During that time I met my friend Eric Stackpole, who wanted to build this underwater robot so that he could explore the Hall City Cave, an underwater limestone cave in the mountains of Northern California, where we’d heard rumors of treasure. I was like ‘whoa, that is so cool! Let me just tag along.’ I helped him put up a website, OpenROV, where we explained that it was going to be an open-source underwater robot, and that we needed help building it – because we didn’t know what we were doing.
We started getting great feedback and contributions from people all over the world, and we still do. It’s in the DNA of our project — the fact that this is something we’re all building together.
Did you find treasure in the cave?
No. But actually, we went back there recently, with Men’s Journal and Range Rover, to film this commercial, with a film crew and everything. It’s like a three-minute documentary. It should be out soon. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
What sorts of people were sending you information?
It’s really diverse. Some are professional ocean engineers. But a lot of them are software developers or electrical engineers who just wanted to start dabbling in underwater robots. We have a group with diverse talents. And even brand-new makers, like me, have been making contributions.
Why do you think people have been so enthusiastic about contributing to this idea? Do you think this represents a new consciousness of some kind?
It harks back to Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus, right? People don’t want to go home and watch TV anymore — they want to continue to use their brains and be engaged in things. I think everyone is attracted to the project not just because of the robot, but because of this sense of adventure. I think that the cave story is equally important to what we’re doing as the actual, physical robot is.
If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that two guys in their garage can build robots and go explore underwater caves. I mean, this is a different era of exploration, when anybody can do this stuff. It doesn’t take a research grant to go out and be curious, and have pretty amazing adventures. I think it’s really exciting for everyone to consider all the potential. It’s just flat-out cool!
So essentially, you took all the information people were offering, and then you went to a maker space and cobbled it together?
Yeah! We did our first hundred OpenROVs at a TechShop. Now we have this lab in Berkeley, California, where we’re making these robots. We have a test tank, tools, everything we need.
There’ve been underwater robots in the past, obviously. So why is OpenROV a breakthrough? Is it the low cost and total accessibility?
Yes, that’s the goal. We want to make a scientifically capable robot for less than a thousand dollars. We still have a lot of room for improvement and evolution, but the rate of improvement is now really impressive. The big innovation, though, is the community. It’s not just about one low-cost robot — it’s the fact that we have this growing community of citizen ocean explorers.
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