In late autumn, I walked through drifts of crunchy leaves in Berkeley's warehouse district to find a strange lab on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Inside, on a work bench surrounded by tidy coils of wire and electrical tape, two geeks were building the next robot revolution. But there were no Google-esque dog armies nor sentient AIs in sight — nor in their business plan. Instead, they showed me the future on a laptop connected to a fat cable that snaked into a large tank of water.
Photo via FastCo
At the other end of the cable was the OpenROV, or remotely operated underwater vehicle, about the size of a shoe box and made from bright blue plastic. On the laptop monitor, I could see the curving walls of the water tank, streaming from a camera tucked safely inside the robot's transparent, tube-shaped electronics chassis. Driving it in gentle circles through the water was Eric Stackpole, a former Small Spacecraft Division engineer for NASA whose eyes light up when he talks about electrical components. David Lang, Stackpole's business parter, showed me how OpenROV is controlled from a simple web interface.
Just that weekend, Lang said, they'd used the OpenROV to film a shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. They dropped the robot in, allowed the neutrally-buoyant device to sink, and flew across the lake bottom until they found a small, algae-covered boat. In the video below, you can see what it was like when they drove the rover inside and illuminated the long-lost interior of the craft, full of sand and startled schools of fish.
Think of it as a scaled-down version of the expeditions that scientists do with robot submersibles to explore the ocean's unknown depths. But unlike a research robot, the OpenROV can be built by hobbyists from a kit that Lang and Stackpole sell from their website for 849 dollars. And anyone can operate it, as long as they fly a "diver down" flag on the surface of the water to warn boaters.
In their jeans and t-shirts, Lang and Stackpole look like a lot of entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. Their operation is lean, and they've allied themselves with the startup-friendly Maker movement. OpenROV started as a crowdfunded project two years ago, and now it's making a profit. But Lang and Stackpole aren't in this to make a zillion bucks. They're true believers in the power of robots to transform our civilization.
Lang, who has written a book about starting OpenROV called Zero to Maker, said his biggest hero is amateur astronomer John Dobson. In the 1960s, Dobson invented the relatively cheap Dobsonian telescope to help citizen scientists stars. Like Lang, Dobson wanted to popularize science, and show people that they didn't need to be professionals to contribute to the field of astronomy. He and Stackpole want OpenROV to be the Dobsonian telescope of the oceanography, allowing students and amateurs to make discoveries that once only Jacques Cousteau could make.
But the OpenROV project isn't about this one little machine, swimming around at the end of its tether. The robot is just one piece of an ecosystem that they are trying to cultivate for future generations. As they show me around their lab, pointing out each evolutionary change in the many versions of their robot, they sketch out their vision of what's coming for humanity.
Lang thinks OpenROV is just the first piece of a world where we're all transformed by what he calls "immersive telerobotics." Essentially, we won't be ruled by robots — we will be augmented by them, seeing and experiencing the world through their sensors.
"I picture a classroom full of kids with oculus rifts, and they're piloting the ROV in real time through ocean canyons," Stackpole said. "We want to popularize the idea of exploration for everybody."
"Really, this is about us waging a war on apathy," added Lang. "We want people to appreciate the world — exploration and adventure are a great way to do that." They talk about how mobile phones are another part of this future where we treat the world as an adventure, a place where our robotic extensions help us make discoveries from classrooms, desktops, and boats floating kilometers above the region we're watching through our oculus rift devices.
Lang and Stackpole have created a great robot, which could almost qualify as adorable if somebody stuck some googly eyes on its chassis. But this machine is also a kind of manifesto, an exhortation to humanity to join together with their robots and explore the universe.
And it might even be working. Lang estimates there are about 400 OpenROVs "in the wild," with more to come now that they've released their latest kit. Many technical upgrades and mods to the design come from a growing community of enthusiasts in the OpenROV forums. People who own these rovers feel like they are participating in designing them. They aren't like drones that you can buy at Radio Shack — they're not just toys that you use and break and forget about.
One day, if Lang and Stackpole's dream comes true, we might look back at OpenROV as the ancestor of a robot that we've now integrated fully into our bodies, our homes, and into our very understanding of what it means to be human. They could be like our cyborg offspring, exploring oceans on Jupiter's moon Europa, and flying through the atmospheres of distant gas giants in centuries to come.
Standing beside the neatly-organized shelves of electronic components in the OpenROV lab, you can just make out the dim outline of a hopeful future for autonomous robots. We will make them with our own hands, and rear them in our communities, among our children. They will not rise up against us. Eventually, they will become us.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She is also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.