The little ROVs that could

by Veronica Padula

I felt like a little kid on Christmas when I opened the white box that said OpenROV. Inside that box was a kit that, when assembled, would become a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). ROVs are little robots that can be driven remotely to explore and capture images of the mysterious underwater world. For those who can’t SCUBA dive but want to see more of what lies beneath the surface, ROVs open the door to that world by capturing photos and video of things that live under the sea.

Plus, there were extra special surprises in the box: a red knit beanie with the OpenROV logo embroidered onto it, which made me feel like we were stepping into a scene from The Life Aquatic, and stickers! The stickers were my favorite part.

ROV_www.openrov.com.jpg

ROVs have been used by marine scientists for decades but are now becoming more accessible to the public for exploring the depths of the ocean. Photo credit: http://www.openrov.com

We had actually received two OpenROV kits, and I was tasked with transporting the kits from Anchorage to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. They were a generous gift from the manager of the Trident Seafoods plant, Bill Briggs. The new instruments are meant for students to use to collect data as part of citizen science projects. I gave Bill one of the red beanies, which I think looks great on him, but I can’t wait to show him the video and photos that come from driving the ROVs around St. Paul harbor, the salt lagoon, and other unexplored territory.

ROV pieces_photo by Veronica Padula

So many pieces!

Our plan was to host an ROV Builder Club, where people from the St. Paul community could come together one night a week over the course of the summer to construct these ROVs. I was supposed to lead the ROV construction and sincerely wish I could say I have lots of experience with building things like ROVs, but sadly I do not. Luckily, Mr. Mac, Walt, and Jacob came to the rescue, contributing their knowledge and expertise to the ROV construction. Kids joined us too, including Zoe, Kadyn, Til, and Brynn.

ROV inventory_photo by Veronica Padula

Jacob and Zoe work together to make sure we have all the parts we need.

It was wonderful to have folks of all ages joining our builder group, and the kids learned a great deal from the adults in our group, including patience. While kids wanted to just jump in and glue all the pieces together, I wanted to go through the entire kit and match every piece of construction material to the pictures in the manual so we were absolutely certain we had everything. You see, while living on St. Paul Island is amazing, sometimes it takes packages a while to reach us. So, if we had to order any parts for our kit, we definitely had to do it at the beginning of the process, because otherwise we would be stalled in our construction.

Team effort_photo by Veronica Padula

This was a team effort!

I had fun watching the kids match the ROV casing’s acrylic shapes to the pictures in the manual. It definitely tested my spatial awareness and likely tested theirs as well. They worked together to identify all the pieces of the kit. Gluing the acrylic pieces together was not an easy task, because we had to make sure the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly. The seals need to be water tight so that seawater doesn’t leak into the ROV and destroy the electronic bits and pieces that make it function. Luckily we had several people on our team who meticulously glued the parts together, so fingers crossed that the seals are water tight!

rov-assembly_photo-by-veronica-padula.jpg

Kadyn and Walt glue wires down and make sure everything is water tight.

While we have the ROVs mostly built, we are troubleshooting some technical hiccups with the batteries. Thankfully we have a dedicated team of builders that will fix these glitches so they are ready for their maiden voyages. I can’t wait to see the excitement on all the kids’ faces when we drop the little robots in the water for the first time and watch them sink away from us, disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Operating the ROV is a job for video-game aficionados, because we are using a video game controller as the remote driving apparatus for the robot. I just hope that our first mission does not involve donning dry suits to free a stuck ROV underwater. That water is cold!

Almost complete_photo by Veronica Padula

They are almost ready for their maiden voyages!

While I’m still no master ROV builder, I am so grateful for the community members that came together to mentor the students, and champion the ROV construction. Their work and dedication means the ROVs will come to life soon. The best part of the process is yet to come, when the kids can partake in ROV voyages and discover the underwater world that surrounds their home. This amazing technology will bring that world closer to them. Who knows, maybe they will discover new species of invertebrates or fish never seen before in the St. Paul ecosystem (or find someone’s glasses that fell off while paddle boarding). I can’t wait to share that joy and wonder with them. Even if the waters are murky, the kids will be able to experience something extremely special using these ROVs—the excitement of exploration. And the best part is that we can have countless ROV explorations over the years. Imagine all the amazing images we can capture, and the stories we can tell over many years through those images.

Captain Kadyn_photo by Veronica Padula

Kadyn will captain one of our ROVs.

We hope to test the ROVs in October. Zoe will captain one of our ROVs, and Kadyn will captain the other. We haven’t named our ROVs yet, but are open to suggestions. Stay tuned for pictures from their maiden voyage. Can’t wait to see what these little robots will find!

To see an example of some underwater ROV video, check out this vintage highlights reel that Anne put together in 2004 from an ROV survey in the San Juan Islands, Washington: www.vimeo.com/236496491

For more about Veronica’s graduate research, read her article on the impacts of plastics in the marine environment: https://krakenandfriends.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/guest-blog-the-plastics-problem/

All photos in this post were taken by Veronica Padula unless otherwise noted.

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