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Start-up makes drones to explore the sea

Crystal clear:OpenROV researchers during an exploratory dive of the Trident submarine on Lake Tahoe.— Photo: NYT

Crystal clear:OpenROV researchers during an exploratory dive of the Trident submarine on Lake Tahoe.— Photo: NYT  

A vast, largely unexplored world is being opened by hobbyists piloting robotic submarines capable of travelling 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 start-up based in Berkeley, California, that builds submarine drone kits. They hope to create a mirror image of the airborne drone craze.

Explores wreck

This month, the OpenROV researchers took over a vacation home here and turned it into a command centre for the maiden 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.

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 goal of the explorers is to have “a lot more eyes in the ocean,” said Lang, who worked for a start-up firm before co-founding OpenROV in 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign. — New York Times News Service

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