2013-09-16

Co.Exist

These Tiny, Personal Submarines Take The Next Step Toward Making Everyone An Explorer

OpenROV, a submersible that you can make and control at home, just picked up a big round of VC funding. What will be next for the DIY exploration movement?

The next Age of Exploration may just be beginning. For centuries, lone explorers have led us over the horizon sponsored by monarchs, governments, and space agencies. Now it's your turn.

Cheap drones, rovers, PhoneSats, and quad-copters are arriving in garages in unprecedented numbers. Packed with sensors and microcomputers, these new tools mean you can start exploring the air, land, and oceans on your own.

One of these new tools, OpenROV, a open-source kit submersible, is leading the way in the underwater realm. Co.Exist has been following the OpenROV story as more than 200 of the tiny tethered subs have dove beneath the waves from Australia to Antarctica. The company, co-founded by Eric Stackpole and David Lang (full disclosure: a friend from the Bay Area), recently snagged $1.3 million in venture capital from True Ventures and SK Ventures.

Funding companies like OpenROV is what more VCs need to do in today's economy, writes Jon Callaghan of True Ventures, to support "founders daring to do big things," even if a massive market for underwater drones is not waiting.

Lang, who is also the author of the recently released book, Zero to Maker, about his personal journey in the maker movement, recently sat down for a Q & A by phone to talk about the future of citizen exploration, the latest OpenROV, and how makers are re-creating the future.

Co.Exist: Where have OpenROV robots been so far?

David Lang: Antarctica, off the coast of Florida Southern California, Mexico, Australia, and all over Europe. There's not many in Africa or Asia, but hopefully that will change soon.

What have people done with OpenROV?

The two most common things are: first, people just really like the idea of having their own underwater robot. Second, it's that people have these places near their homes, like a cave, and they say, "There's this one place I've always wanted to know." I see those all the time.

What's different about the newest version of OpenROV?

This new version is finally like the tool we sought in the beginning. The old OpenROV looks like the new one…but that's the only thing that's the same. We've got new batteries, new battery pack design, an internal controller board, a more durable polypro shell, the software has grown by leaps and bounds, and new props: 200% performance improvements from the props alone.

How has the vision for OpenROV changed since last year?

We did not start with this vision. We wanted this tool for ourselves. ... And in order to get where we needed to be, we had to ask this community to join and invite more people along for the ride.

We found it's a really powerful thing: collaborative exploration. Maybe we don't need a research grant to do something if we have enough people who are committed and interested. We feel like we've seen around this corner and there is a possible future where exploration is something we all participate in, not just relegate to experts.

I really think we backed into it. We stumbled upon this future.

What role do you see for OpenROV for professional explorers?

Not surprisingly, more scientists are seeing this as a potential tool: not just the robot, but embracing the community as well. Astronomy has done a really good job of this for decades ... with citizen scientists.

We hope OpenROV can be like the Dobsonian telescope of open exploration [a simple powerful and open-source telescope design that has let thousands access astronomy].

Why did you decide to pursue VC funding?

We met Jon [Callaghan at TED], and he shared our enthusiasm for exploration. Working with True was an opportunity to take the vision to the next level. We're able to do more, faster. So many people in Silicon Valley talk about solving hard problems. So few investors back that up. We're excited to work with them.

There does not seem to be a clear business model for OpenROV, especially one typical for VCs. Do you feel you need to make a certain financial return?

I don't' know. We think there's a big opportunity in unlocking exploration. We're on to something with the technology but we also don't want to limit ourselves with what specifically that is. We have every intention of capitalizing on some of these big opportunities. There's all sorts of users.

So what's your business model at the moment?

We sell robots, man, we sell robots. It's not really a secret hidden agenda. We sell them for more than it costs us to make them. But what's exciting about ROV isn't that we're making underwater robots.

What we're doing is we're trying to democratize exploration. We're trying to make exploration something that everyone can do--this curiosity is a very fundamental human attribute. We have all these new tools.

It's still very much part of the maker movement, people are tired of being passive consumers of their lives and they want to make things and and see more. The maker movement has been a big trend. I don't think it's something that's going away. It's something that has really stuck with a lot of people and really hit home.

Everyone is out in the world looking for more meaning. I think the maker movement is one of the few things in the world that's offers it. And this is part of that.

What has been the reaction to the book so far?

It's been really good: [people] know about the maker movement, but they don't' know it is something [anyone] could do.

The barriers between an idea and it becoming a physical reality are smaller than ever. ... I think there are so many people who have jobs staring at computer screens. But it's a really human thing to want to make things: we're tool makers and tool users, and it can open up an entire world outside the screen.

Any interesting characters you met along the way?

The book is full of characters. One of my favorites is Thomas Thwaites, and the toaster project. It's such a lovely story and sweet guy. My favorite part of that is that he makes it very, very clear that no one is making any of this stuff on their own.

That was something that was holding me back: that I was not technical or capable.

It's not DIY, its DIT: Do It Together. When I went into this, I thought, "Oh my gosh, I need to make this all myself." The maker movement is more of an innovation about working with a group of people that are making the future, not passively accepting it.

Right now, you just need to make the decision to get started … and go out and buy my book.

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