Make us your home page
Instagram

A drone startup explores underwater

Researchers from OpenROV conduct an exploratory dive of a prototype of their next-generation Trident submarine in Lake Tahoe in June. Two young engineers created OpenROV, which builds the submarine drone kits.

New York Times

Researchers from OpenROV conduct an exploratory dive of a prototype of their next-generation Trident submarine in Lake Tahoe in June. Two young engineers created OpenROV, which builds the submarine drone kits.

GLENBROOK, Nev. — A vast, largely unexplored world is being opened by hobbyists piloting robotic submarines capable of traveling hundreds of feet below the surface of lakes, rivers and oceans.

Styling themselves as citizen scientists, two young engineers, Eric Stackpole and David Lang, have created OpenROV, a small startup in Berkeley, Calif., that builds submarine drone kits. They hope to create a mirror image of the airborne drone craze.

Last month, the OpenROV researchers took over a vacation home in Nevada and turned it into a command center for the first dive of a prototype of the next version of their Trident submarine. The sub explored the wreck of the SS Tahoe, a turn-of-the-last-century steamer that now lies less than a half-mile offshore in depths up to almost 500 feet below the surface of Lake Tahoe, which divides California and Nevada.

OpenROV has sold more than 3,000 of a first-generation submarine, which is able to navigate below the surface, connected by a thin cable and controlled by software running on a tablet or smartphone. The new Trident, which will go on sale this fall for $1,499, will travel at speeds of almost 4 knots underwater and will have a high-resolution camera and a lighting system as bright as car headlights. It will operate from a wirelessly connected buoy.

'Queen of the Lake'

From a converted bedroom filled with computer displays, Charles Cross, an OpenROV software engineer, piloted the Trident down through the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe. Within minutes the researchers could see the SS Tahoe as it emerged from the blue gloom on the lake floor.

The 154-ton, 170-foot-long steamer was once called the "Queen of the Lake," carrying passengers and mail in style. Built in San Francisco in 1896, it was intentionally scuttled in 1940. The intent was to sink the ship in shallow water to make it easily visible from a glass-bottom boat, but the underwater slope was steeper than the ship's owners realized.

The boat slid out of sight, ultimately coming to rest with its bow in 360 feet of water and its stern at a depth of 490 feet. The SS Tahoe was first reached in 2002 by a highly technical dive team that in the process set a record for high-altitude scuba diving. (Lake Tahoe is more than 6,200 feet above sea level.)

Now they hope they can democratize the science and adventure that has previously been accessible only to someone with the resources of Robert Ballard, the oceanographer and explorer who has investigated ships such as the Titanic and the Bismarck, a German battleship sunk in the early stages of World War II.

The idea also intrigued professional archaeologists as well as an official from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who joined the expedition last month.

David McKinnie, who is a senior adviser at NOAA's Ocean Explorer program, met the two engineers several years ago. Last year he invited them to make a presentation at an event for ocean explorers that the administration sponsored.

"They were by and far the hit of the show," he said. "People were captivated by the potential of citizen exploration."

The Trident submarine, which was steered by a video game controller, was able to gently float around the shipwreck and dip into the ship through an exposed roof section that had been torn away.

In keeping with the citizen-science aspirations, the dives were broadcast live over social media platforms like Facebook and Twitch. Trailed by a thin power and networking cable, the sub glided over the length of the wreck, beaming high-resolution video back to a command center, where it was displayed on a large computer monitor in a room overlooking the lake.

Ocean observation

The goal of the explorers is to have "a lot more eyes in the ocean," said Lang, who worked for a startup firm before co-founding OpenROV in 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign.

The OpenROV researchers now manage a nonprofit website, OpenExplorer, to encourage their community of drone submarine explorers to share the results of their adventures.

"We're actually legitimately building the world's largest ocean observation platform on a shoestring," Lang said.

While poking around the SS Tahoe wreck, the OpenROV team found a plaque that had been left behind by the previous team of divers who reached the site more than a decade ago.

Navigating underwater was challenging, and the dive team had to be careful to keep from tangling their tether deep below the surface.

They tracked their location in part by periodically observing a bright light that was suspended under the surface from their control boat hundreds of feet above.

They were able to easily reconstruct how the ship had come to its final resting place and trace the furrow that it created as it slid deeper into the lake.

An observer noted that one of the old myths that had been passed on to visitors to the lake by a mailman in the 1940s was that Tahoe's deep waters were so cold that drowning victims stood up when they came to rest on the lake bottom.

No bodies were seen by the Trident, only the occasional fish.

A drone startup explores underwater 07/08/16 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2016 6:35pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, New York Times.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Water Street Tampa unveils video showing downtown's transformation

    Business

    TAMPA — Water Street Tampa, the sweeping, 50-plus acre redevelopment project in Tampa's urban core, has unveiled new images and video of what the downtown district will look like upon completion.

    Strategic Property Partners released a conceptual image of what the Tampa skyline will look like once its redevelopment of 50-plus acres of downtown will look like. [Photo courtesy of  of SPP]
  2. Florida ranks high for workplace equality between men and women

    Working Life

    When it comes to the workplace, Florida ranks fifth in terms of gender equality, a WalletHub study released Tuesday found.

    Florida ranks high in terms of equality between men and women in the workplace. Pictured is Sandra Murman, county commissioner in 2015, talking about the differences in pay between men and women. | [Times file photo]
  3. Treasury secretary's wife boasts of travel on government plane, touts high fashion

    National

    U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's wife, Louise Linton, boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky on Monday and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post that only became more bizarre minutes later.

    Steven Mnuchin and his then- financee Louise Linton watch as President Donald Trump speaks during Mnuchin's swearing-in ceremony as  treasury secretary in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 13. [Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images]
  4. Ford, Chinese partner look at possible electric car venture

    Autos

    BEIJING — Ford Motor Co. and a Chinese automaker said Tuesday they are looking into setting up a joint venture to develop and manufacture electric cars in China.

    In this April 23, 2016 photo, attendees take smartphone photos at a promotional event for Ford Motor Company ahead of the Auto China car show in Beijing. Ford Motor Co. announced an agreement Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 with a Chinese partner to look into forming a joint venture to develop and manufacture electric cars in China. [AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein]
  5. Judge throws out $458,000 condo sale, says Clearwater attorney tricked bidders

    Real Estate

    CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold on Monday threw out the $458,100 sale of a gulf-front condo because of what he called an "unscrupulous" and "conniving" scheme to trick bidders at a foreclosure auction.

    John Houde, left, whose Orlando copany was the high  bidder June 8 at the foreclosure auction of a Redington Beach condo, looks in the direction of Clearwater lawyer and real estate investor Roy C. Skelton, foreground,  during a hearing Monday before Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times ]