Throughout history there have been wonderful discoveries stumbled upon by accident–penicillin, microwaves, even plastic.
David Lang hopes that there are still a lot more out there. And he’s looking under the sea.
To help him, David invented a sort of underwater robot. He calls it the OpenROV, a boxy automaton that looks like Wall-E, if Wall-E knew how to swim.
“People always ask me, what do you expect to find?” David says. “And I never have a good answer. But I think that’s OK.”
David belongs to a club of self-starters who call themselves “makers.” A few years ago, at the Maker Faire, he met his future partner Eric Stackpole, who was working on a personal submarine. Eric was going to take it to an underwater cave he had heard about, and David wanted to tag along.
That submarine became the starting point for OpenROV, an open source, remotely operated vehicle that can transmit live video, create 3D maps of its surroundings, and provide a first-person perspective of the mysteries beneath us.
Its technology allows for exploration of places humans might not otherwise be able to go, whether that’s an underwater cave in the mountains or a trench off the coast.
It’s essentially a low-cost vehicle that could be used for legitimate adventure.
Open sourcing exploration
The project’s maker beginnings live on. With a mission to enable anyone to become an ocean explorer, David and Eric have developed an OpenROV community and are building robots for both amateurs and professionals to explore with.
By having the OpenROVs out in the wild, in the hands of makers and tinkerers around the world, the open-source community to will improve upon the robot and make it more powerful than it would have been with just a single architect.
They have gotten calls from archaeologists who wanted an OpenROV for an exploration in Mexico; that robot found ancient Mayan pottery underwater in that adventure. Just weeks ago a scientist in Hawaii requested a robot to take to Honolulu Harbor, where a molasses spill is suffocating aquatic life.
“No matter what we find,” David says, “the important thing has to be about inspiring people to look.”
The rise of the explorer class
David compares the rise of the personal explorer with the career accomplishments that have been launched by ordinary people in once-elite industries, like movies, music, and journalism.
“Now I think discovery is going to be democratized in a very similar way,” he says. “We’re a very small piece of that.”
To further this democracy, he’s working on a website called Open Explorers that encourages people to get out and explore the world, a kind of social network for the Magellan inside everyone.
Next up for David is a trip to the Sea of Cortez–or the Gulf of California–where he and a handful of friends will follow John Steinbeck’s six-week 1940 journey and collect marine specimens. They’ll have their makers kit with them–which includes, in addition to the OpenROV, a device that collects molecules.
“The robot has opened up all these new opportunities to go places to explore,” David says. “But it’s also important to take a step back and look at how far we’ve come in two years, towards that initial goal of wanting everyone to be able to explore. It’s really exciting to think about the next chapter.”
This article was produced on behalf of Land Rover by the Quartz Marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.