David Lang: My underwater robot
February 25, 2013
David Lang is a maker who taught himself to become an amateur oceanographer -- or, he taught a robot to be one for him. In a charming talk Lang, a TED Fellow, shows how he and a network of ocean lovers teamed up to build open-sourced, low-cost underwater explorers.David Lang
David Lang is a maker and the co-founder of OpenROV, a community of ocean lovers who build underwater robots. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So this video was taken
at Aquarius undersea laboratory
four miles off the coast of Key Largo,
about 60 feet below the surface.
NASA uses this extreme environment
to train astronauts and aquanauts,
and last year, they invited us along for the ride.
All the footage was taken from our open ROV,
which is a robot that we built in our garage.
So ROV stands for Remote Operated Vehicle,
which in our case means our little robot
sends live video
across that ultra-thin tether
back to the computer topside.
It's open source, meaning we publish
and share all of our design files
and all of our code online,
allowing anyone to modify
or improve or change the design.
It's built with mostly off-the-shelf parts
and costs about 1,000 times cheaper
than the ROVs James Cameron used
to explore the Titanic.
So ROVs aren't new.
They've been around for decades.
Scientists use ROVs to explore the oceans.
Oil and gas companies use them for exploration
What we've built isn't unique.
It's how we've built it that's really unique.
So I want to give you a quick story
of how it got started.
So a few years ago, my friend Eric and I
decided we wanted to explore this underwater cave
in the foothills of the Sierras.
We had heard this story about lost gold
from a Gold Rush-era robbery,
and we wanted to go up there.
Unfortunately, we didn't have any money
and we didn't have any tools to do it.
So Eric had an initial design idea for a robot,
but we didn't have all the parts figured out,
so we did what anybody would do in our situation:
we asked the Internet for help.
More specifically, we created this website,
openROV.com, and shared
our intentions and our plans
For the first few months, it was just Eric and I
talking back to each other on the forums,
but pretty soon, we started to get feedback
from makers and hobbyists,
and then actually professional ocean engineers
who had some suggestions for what we should do.
We kept working on it. We learned a lot.
We kept prototyping, and eventually,
we decided we wanted to go
to the cave. We were ready.
So about that time, our little expedition
became quite a story,
and it got picked up in The New York Times.
And we were pretty much just overwhelmed
with interest from people who wanted a kit
that they could build this open ROV themselves.
So we decided to put the project on Kickstarter,
and when we did,
we raised our funding goal in about two hours,
and all of a sudden,
had this money to make these kits.
But then we had to learn how to make them.
I mean, we had to learn small batch manufacturing.
So we quickly learned that our garage
was not big enough to hold our growing operation.
But we were able to do it, we got all the kits made,
thanks a lot to TechShop,
which was a big help to us,
and we shipped these kits all over the world
just before Christmas of last year,
so it was just a few months ago.
But we're already starting to get video
and photos back from all over the world,
including this shot from under the ice in Antarctica.
We've also learned the penguins love robots.
So we're still publishing all the designs online,
encouraging anyone to build these themselves.
That's the only way that we could have done this.
By being open source, we've created
this distributed R&D network,
and we're moving faster than
any venture-backed counterpart.
But the actual robot is really only half the story.
The real potential, the long term potential,
is with this community of DIY ocean explorers
that are forming all over the globe.
What can we discover
when there's thousands of these devices
roaming the seas?
So you're probably all wondering: the cave.
Did you find the gold?
Well, we didn't find any gold,
but we decided that what we found
was much more valuable.
It was the glimpse into a potential future
for ocean exploration.
It's something that's not limited to
the James Camerons of the world,
but something that we're all participating in.
It's an underwater world
we're all exploring together.
David Lang is a maker and the co-founder of OpenROV, a community of ocean lovers who build underwater robots.Why you should listen
David Lang is a maker whose craving for adventure turned him into an amateur ocean explorer. A few years ago Lang and NASA engineer Eric Stackpole went looking for lost gold (literally) in an underwater cave in the foothills of the Sierra Navada. But they weren't quite sure how to go about it. Without much expertise (or money), the two put initial designs for an underwater robot explorer online. Soon OpenROV was born: a community of citizen ocean explorers who build and constantly improve upon these small remote operated underwater robots.
Lang is also the author of Zero to Maker and a 2013 TED Fellow. He lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay.
The original video is available on TED.com