As the underwater remote-controlled robot descends from the water’s surface it zooms forward on a thin tether, its headlights the only things illuminating the marine world. Since 2013, the robots have been used for everything from exploring a shipwreck to conducting scientific fieldwork. Invented by Eric Stackpole, ’09 Mechanical Engineering, co-founder of OpenROV, the robot gives off a futuristic vibe, but it’s the way OpenROV generates community that is really ahead of its time.
Robot kits sell for $899, or a pre-built model is available for $1,450. On Openexplorer.com explorers share how they are using their rovers, and visitors can then “follow” and even “contribute” to an adventure. Right now, a father of two is building a rover with his daughters in hopes that by spring they will be able to explore the ocean near their Maine home. On its website, OpenROV openly shares its design specs to expand the invention’s possibilities. “We are trying to make the exploration of the unknown something that everyday people can do. It doesn’t take a science grant to see something no one ever has before.”
At SJSU, Stackpole designed robots to attend classes in his place, built satellites with the CubeSat Team, and served as president of the Amateur Radio Club. “SJSU has a huge number of students. You find yourself in a mixing pot, a sort of sample of the whole world. When you have an idea, you are almost certain to find other people who believe in it.”
In 2010, he was working on his master’s degree and designing robots in his free time when a friend told him about a treasure buried in the bottom of a California cave. He partnered with a friend and the two turned to Kickstarter to raise funds. They surpassed their campaign goal of $20,000 in about two hours. By month’s end they had raised $100,000 and OpenROV took off.
As owners of the vast network of 3,000 rovers share everything from hardware tips to videos on OpenROV.com, the company offers much more than a means to explore the underwater world. “You can have some amount of success with a business by selling a product, but really the way to find complete success is by creating a movement—in our case it is the democratization of exploration.” Stackpole has been fine-tuning these beliefs since he was a student—inventing robots through equal parts curiosity and community.