Remember discovery? I don’t mean finding the latest indie rock bands or articles you might like on the Internet. I’m talking about the word in its original, pre-buzzword sense: Exploring unknown parts of the physical world.
The age-old practice is being revitalized by a budding online community–and their pet robots.
Open Explorer is a website where hobbyists and scientists can chronicle expeditions conducted using small robotic ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). The project is an offshoot of OpenROV, the Kickstarted submersible vehicle from 2012 that made undersea exploration accessible to enthusiasts by lowering the cost of the components to under $1,000.
“This whole thing has just gotten out of control,” says David Lang, cofounder of OpenROV and Open Explorer. The popularity of the device led to a flood of new DIY expeditions, as the ROVs are being sent into under-explored parts of the ocean to conduct scientific inquiries.
This offshoot of the maker movement has turned undersea exploration from a specialized scientific endeavor into a DIY weekend project for anybody who wants to virtually explore the ocean, 95 percent of which is still unexplored. “All of the sudden, you don’t need a big NSF grant or to be a NatGeo explorer to go out and discover something,” says Lang. “You just need to be curious.”
Each entry on Open Explorer is a geotagged timeline that documents a given expedition in Storify-like fashion. As you scroll down through the timestamped blocks of text and imagery, the adjacent map adjusts to show the expedition’s geographic movements. The idea is to not only give explorers a platform for sharing and collaboration, but a place to connect with donors who will fund their adventures.
“There’s this sense that everything has been discovered,” says Lang. And that there’s only a few people who get to be explorers. And they are National Geographic people. And everyone else just gets to read about their stories later on. I think that’s an unfortunate myth. There’s so much left to discover, especially in the ocean.”
At launch, all of the explorations on Open Explorer are ocean-based, but Lang wants to expand it to include other kinds of adventures as well. There are already projects underway that use drones for exploration and Lang says he hopes to see the site used to document urban expeditions as well.
Lang, along with his cofounder Eric Stackpole, were inspired to launch OpenROV by their desire to explore an underwater cave in the Trinity Alps in California. Since reaching their funding goal, the duo not only delved into the cave, but effectively crowdsourced their own education along the way. The endeavor proved to be much more complex than they anticipated and they soon realized that shipping hundreds of remote-controlled robots was only the beginning. The small but flourishing community would need a place to trade notes and collaborate.
Darcy Paulin is one hobbyist who has benefited from Lang and Stackpole’s efforts. By day, Paulin runs a board game store in Vancouver, but on the side he’s much more adventurous. Recently, he sent an OpenROV robot into the waters off of Passage Island in British Columbia. As the ROV floated along, Paulin spotted what he thought was a coral reef, but it turned out to be a rare species of glass sponge.
“It’s amazing. People thought these were extinct,” says Lang. “He kind of just stumbled across them and then got in touch with different scientists to figure out what it was. It’s a pretty cool thing for someone to start with a curiosity and then stumble across this species that is very rare and a very important part of their whole ecosystem.”
One student is using OpenROV kits to look for radiation in Fukushima, Japan. Meanwhile, NOAA contacted OpenROV about a project.
So go ahead, insist Lang and Stackpole, tap the “Explore” button on this app called life. You might need a robot to help guide the way, but there’s evidently still plenty to be discovered out there.