By Ben Gruber
BERKELEY, Cal (Reuters) - It started off as a treasure hunt. Sifting through a magazine from the 1970's, Eric Stackpole pointed out an article to David Lang that hinted at the location of a pile of gold that has been missing for more than 100 years.
"There was this story that there was a robbery and gold was thrown to the bottom of this underwater cave and all of these treasure hunters and scuba divers, no one was able to get to the bottom, so Eric had this big idea that he was going to build this underwater robot to go explore," said Lang, co-founder of Open ROV, a California start up that specializes in the design and manufacture of underwater drones.
Over the past four years the company has developed several prototypes for exploring the ocean and is now putting the finishing touches on their latest design.
Called Trident, it's basically a waterproof smart phone with thrusters that can operate 100 meters (328 ft.) underwater. It sends a video signal, as well as temperature, depth, and directional information to the surface in real time via a tether connected to a wireless buoy. That buoy is connected to the internet, allowing the robot to be controlled from afar.
To enhance the experience of exploring underwater, the team developed software that allows users to immerse themselves into an underwater environment using a virtual reality headset. While the robot is designed for anyone to use, Lang says it's proving popular with the science community as a low cost research tool.
"Ocean science and exploration is really tragically underfunded and there are all sorts of people that are stuck in this post-docalypse who are trying to get the research done with very limited budgets and so this tool has become great for them," said Lang, adding that Trident will cost just a fraction of the price of conventional ROVs with much of the same functionality.
While their robot could give researchers insights on to how to better protect the oceans, Lang says it won't ultimately matter unless we all grasp the importance and fragility of our underwater ecosystem.
"The most important thing and the first thing is that we have to get people to care and I think the way to do that is to allow them to engage. It is to give them the tools to actually explore themselves and to feel some sense of ownership in the process," he said.
Lang and Stackpole haven't had luck tracking down their underwater gold yet but say their new mission to open up the oceans to a curious public is worth more than any treasure they can imagine. The company is in the final days of a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that has raised more than $740,000 USD to date.