The last several years, we have built submersible robots for Summer programs exploring local waterways. Many of our workshop participants want inexpensive self-built robots they can take along (and service) to summer camp locations for exploring fresh-water lakes, rivers and one student who was a Boy Scout took their group’s ROV to the Floria Sea Base BSA “High Adventure” camp to look below the waves in salt-water as well.
Our usual models using the MIT Sea Perch design proved unsuited to deep water (deeper than a common pool at least) because the foam floation tubes compress as the ROV dives, losing bouyancy and causing the robot to sink uncontrollably to the end of its tether. This limited their exploration to shallow regions where surface turbulence and debris overcame the small thrusters (home-made from wax-sealed DC motors).
We use the Sea Perch design because the ROVs teach the principles of bouyancy, mechanical design and remote control using principles we teach in our basic electronics workshops or are able to teach during the ROV build sessions. Also, each ROV can be completed by a group for under $60 USD per robot. This Summer, we will try out a swappable shared video system that can be moved from one ROV to another as each group practices, so the materials cost per ROV should fall under $25 USD.
Some of our participants from outside the local group want to build ROVs for competitions like the Houston Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) mission which requires significantly more resolution in controls than the simple toggle switches used in Sea Perch ROVs. This will obviously require the participants to innovate and improve their designs. Building one of these ROVs is more costly with kits for the SeaMATE Angelfish ROV around $515 USD each for the ROV and its Controller, with educational discounts. Our participants trying to take part in this competition live in the Houston area and are locally raising money for their equipment costs.
Several of our participant groups are working on Science Faire projects and school projects related to animal and plant life in the water (fresh, brackish and salt) of Texas – including inlets from the Gulf of Mexico and rivers around the state. A pair of them brought up the open-source OpenROV design they had seen in our MAKE Magazine files, as the design can dive to 25 meters (around 82 feet) and carries its own LED-illuminated webcamera for live video of the observed area even when at depth.
The OpenROV design appears to be able to attain depths sufficient to perform visual counts of plant and animal life in the areas under consideration. We have students that want to use them to try to capture images of submerged artifacts to use in our 3D Printing SOLID LEARNING workshops and a landowner in the Sabinal Canyon (middle part of the Texas Hill Country) will let us camp for an extended event and explore the Sabinal River on their land where there are obvious dinosaur tracks and many other fossil formations of interest to different students.
Several of our participants are currently working on a variation of this professional grade water sampling system used on high-end commercial robots. The OpenROV design is shared under the Open-Source model, so the designs produced in our tests will also be shared under the Creative Commons license we regularly cover in our RepRap and 3D Design workshops as the OpenROV designers have done for their own design.
We will continue building our other ROV designs while we try to Crowdfund a single OpenROV Kit ($930 USD for the ROV and a depth sensor) through Round 4 of the #SciFund Challenget we have participated in over the past few years. If we are successful, our participants will be able to use the ROV in their exploration of our waterways and the characteristics they discover there or through their experiments in life science, impact of water pollution, archaeological and paleological artifiacts, and other types of learning beyond the Robotics and remote operational management of the ROV itself – all conducted while the participants remain dry and safe on land or in the boat (a safety issue testing the Solar Seaweed design crowdfunded through #SciFund last year required the assistance of SCUBA-equipped divers and a boat in the Gulf of Mexico).
Over the Winter break and across the first weeks of the new year, we began laying out the plan for 2014’s workshops and the theme will be Robotics this year with an emphesis on ROVs and 3D Printers, which are after all simply purpose-specific programmable automated machinery (Robots!). A few enthusiastic students and educators printed out OpenROV toys (Thing #120663) for inspiration. These types of items will play a role in our crowdfunding effort by providing “rewards” our students can create for our sponsors! I will try to include one of these in the photos of our coming projects to remind everyone of the theme this year!