Build your own undersea robot

Posted: 09/07/2011 in all marine news

David Schneider –

Last year at about this time, crews in the Gulf of Mexico were working feverishly to bring BP’s blown-out oil well under control. Some of the more spectacular parts of that effort, as you may recall, involved the use of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. Perhaps you had the same thought as I did—that it would be cool to build one.

To be sure, no garage-workbench hacker is going to build an undersea robot that operates a diamond saw or wrestles with a stuck blowout preventer. But those vehicles also monitored events on the seafloor and streamed some amazing video to the Web in real time. A small inspection-class unit—one that carries just a video camera around underwater—ought to be within the grasp of an avid DIYer.

A quick search of the Web revealed no shortage of home-built ROVs. There are even competitions, such as the one for students that the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center in Monterey, Calif., has been running for 10 years. In a similar vein, MIT’s Sea Perch program trains teachers (who in turn train their students) to build a simple ROV as an educational exercise.

With all that going on, I thought it was high time for me to get my feet wet—again. As it happens, I’ve some background in this sort of thing, having worked briefly building underwater instruments at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, just north of New York City.

I even built an ROV for fun in the late 1990s. Its underwater thrusters, like the ones employed by most DIYers today, used DC motors mounted in watertight housings. Flexible shaft seals prevented water from getting to the innards of the motors. It used trolling motors, the kind you see pushing small fishing boats around. Submersible bilge pumps are another popular solution.

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