Dispatches from Oceans ‘16: Tech Startup Pushing Boundaries and Supporting Citizen Science

The OpenROV project, a tech startup that began in a garage in Cupertino in 2012, focuses on citizen science as a path to enhancing ocean observations.

David Lang is a founding partner of OpenROV Project. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

David Lang is a founding partner of OpenROV Project. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Three years ago David Lang and Eric Stackpole started building remotely operated vehicle (ROV) kits in a garage. Stackpole is an engineer, and Lang is a writer whose passion and enthusiasm for citizen science and new technology has been on display all week at Oceans ‘16. He sat on panels about the future of oceans services and led discussions about breaking down barriers between researchers, entrepreneurs and everyday citizens eager to engage in scientific data collection.

The two entrepreneurs used Kickstarter to fund their project, OpenROV, in order to build a low-cost underwater vehicle to explore an underwater cave. They relied on open-source tech support and community engagement to refine the ROV design and eventually ramped up their efforts to sell kits to the public. The organization now boasts researchers using their ROVs in 50 countries to teach students, conduct research and explore the ocean environment.

In the Philippines, one researcher posted in an OpenROV forum that he is using the ROV to explore mesophotic ecosystems, which are areas too deep for divers to explore, but shallower than 150 meters.

The author of the post wrote: “Buffered from direct and indirect anthropogenic disturbances by depth, these systems are thought to act as an important reservoir of recruits for coral and fish populations in shallow-water systems.”

After building more than 3,000 kits, Lang and Stackpole returned to Kickstarter and raised $800,000 to build the next generation ROV named the Trident, which Lang carries around in a backpack and is eager to display whenever anyone asks. Trident can travel 100 meters in 50.77 seconds, is highly maneuverable, and can stream video directly to Facebook; it costs $1,500.

In the next five years, Lang envisions hiring a chief scientist in lieu of a marketing strategist. Lang asked: “What do you do when you have 10,000 robots all over the world?”

He believes a scientist can help answer that question in ways that will connect the organization to the larger scientific community.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Sept. 23, 2016, to correct the number of kits.

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