OpenROV is a project that provides plans and software for a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Currently, it's a series of prototypes, with the goal of a fully-realized design of an underwater exploration device.
It was originally created to explore Hall City Cave in northern California. The cave has a lake where robbers supposedly dropped gold. The ROV has made a successful journey into the lake, although it hasn’t yet struck gold.
The OpenROV project provides hardware plans to create a robot with brushless propellers for mobility, a mounting chassis on which a camera is installed, and additional room for other payloads.
The project also provides software that lets you control the ROV through a command shell.
OpenROV isn't a complete project yet, but has lots of possibilities for expansion. The most intriguing directions for the project focus on a two primary areas: the platform and the communications layer.
The platform currently uses BeagleBone as an onboard controller. BeagleBone responds to a set of commands sent through a serial cable. Future possibilities include using an Arduino or Raspberry Pi as a controller--possibly even an Android phone.
The tether that provides access to the platform from a controller is another area ripe for customization or improvement. The tether has to be light enough to not restrict the ROV's movement, yet have enough bandwidth to send back worthwhile data in the form of video or other collected information. The tether must also be strong enough to support retrieval of the ROV in the case of a failure.
If an Android or other wireless-capable controller is used, the tether's requirements become somewhat simpler–but then the communications layer has to be supported underwater, assuming the ROV remains an underwater vehicle. Modifying environment would change the communications layer requirements. An airborne ROV, for example, has access to many more communications options.
Obviously, the choice of controller affects the programming used to interface with the device. The present version uses Processing, an open source programming language, to handle interaction, but the software is simple enough to offer a lot of room for exploration and improvement.
Where to go?
The project is still fairly disorganized, with files hosted in various places and many manufacturing possibilities. However, the strength of the project is that the base ROV is very easy to build, and the wide-open nature of the project means that any designer can provide enhancements in any way they like (within the limits of the technology and general physics, of course).
An aspiring ROVer could easily build an OpenROV platform that extends the current set of features. Remote controlled vehicles are not at all new—nor is the process of building them from scratch—but the open source approach provides a new set of tools and options for RC enthusiasts who want to take a DIY approach.
ROVs aren't new – RC planes, cars, and boats have been around for years. They provide a lot of room for the hobbyist to learn construction techniques and push the limits of what can be done. However, in many cases even the plans for homebuilt devices are very expensive, and there's rarely a grander goal in mind than simple enjoyment.
OpenROV, however, has a different experience in mind: exploration and data collection, as well as preservation of the experience. Since it is focused on underwater exploration, it also addresses different challenges than a simple RC plane–and that means there's a lot more room for designing something lasting and new.