In April, we had the chance to meet Eric Stackpole and David Lang at the International Space Apps Challenge. They had submitted a challenged called “OpenROV Framework Development” with the goal to “further the development of hardware, software, and communications interfaces to visually and bathymetrically map the ocean floor, in an opensource fashion.” OpenROV captured our interest, not only because it was one of the top globally recognized solutions submitted during the event, but because it’s exactly the open source, observation-class ROV (remotely operated vehicle) we have been looking for! Let me explain.
During last year’s NEEMO-15 mission, the NASA Open Government Initiative built a software platform to engage citizen scientists in helping us crowdsource the analysis of the coral reef around the Aquarius habitat. The effort was an overwhelming success. In just over a week, over 300 citizen scientists discovered over 12,000 features, and confirmed (or disputed) each others observations over 22,000 times. Crowdsourcing techniques such as these are being considered in the overall exploration approach, as NASA plans missions to distant worlds, including asteroids.
The plans for OpenROV couldn’t have fit more perfectly with our hopes of crowdsourcing science during the NEEMO mission. The goal of the OpenROV project has been to create an ROV that is low-cost and able to be built with mostly off-the-shelf parts, but also capable of doing scientific research. A secondary goal of the project has been to cultivate a community of citizen science contributors to the design and implementation of the ROV. The contributors consist of both professional and amateur underwater robotics enthusiasts.
The promise of OpenROV is that citizens around the world can create their own open hardware and help us explore our world. This is why we invited Eric Stackpole and David Langto join Chris Gerty and I at the NEEMO mission to see how we might combine the open software and open hardware technology we have collectively developed. If you aren’t familiar with NEEMO, it’s a NASA analog mission that sends groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station, for weeks at a time. As Brian McGlaughlin describes it, NEEMO is “an amazing rapid prototyping environment that is like a Hackathon on the ocean floor.” The Aquarius habitat and its surroundings provide a useful analog for space exploration. The ocean floor is largely uncharted terrain, has potential to be explored in great detail, and has the need to send people to only the most interesting of locations – much the same is true of our potential off-planet destinations.
The team’s focus during NEEMO-16 was specifically to demonstrate how open hardware can be used to take imagery of local undersea environments, and then feed this data into applications that visualize or crowdsource the analysis, in order that we might better understand extreme environments. From a technical perspective, the test evaluated the opportunity for incorporating open source hardware technology into the program, learning both the benefits and challenges of an open, distributed development network. The larger benefit of incorporating OpenROV is the potential for the engagement and involvement of the general public. By using a low-cost, open source product, NASA aims to involve public contributions to their missions as well as inspire citizen scientists to experiment and explore in their own backyards. Our objectives for the week were simply to:
- Establish physical and software techniques to minimize effect of ocean currents and sea states on a lightweight ROV,
- Develop techniques to generate a geotagged imagery dataset of the reef,
- Demonstrate ability to provide real-time situational awareness to ongoing NEEMOseafloor activities, and
- Interface with other objectives of NEEMO-16 and evaluate use of OpenROV technology for future missions.
The OpenROV performed spectacularly during the test and the technology demonstration was a success, which enabled the team to experiment a bit more using the platform. An undersea sensor package used by science teams at NEEMO-16 was attached to the OpenROV and evaluated. Also, images of Aquarius gathered by various underwater GoPro cameras were processed by Autodesk’s 123D image software to attempt a three-dimensional mapping of structure on the ocean floor. Thank you to Eric Stackpole and David Lang of OpenROV for participating in the mission as well as Brian McLaughlin from the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) project at NASA Goddard for helping to share the story with his audience on Wired’s Geek Dad blog.
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