A few years ago CES unofficially hosted “the year of the drone” — everyone suddenly had a flying platform to show at the event, with big booths and demos from DJI, Parrot, and countless other global companies, showing everything from micro-sized flyers to multicopters big enough to carry substantial cargo loads.
Since then, drones have maintained a steady presence at CES, with autonomous electric personal transport being the latest to make noise in the space at last year’s show. This year, running through the drone area in south hall, you’ll still find the broad range of companies, but they now have a new set of neighbors — small underwater rovers. Lots of them. They come in bright nautical colors, oranges and yellows. Some are sleek, some look like small versions of scientific research vessels. A couple are even shaped like sharks, with propulsion generated from an undulating tail fin.
It’s an interesting development, especially from the perspective of the maker community. In 2011, David Lang and Eric Stackpole launched OpenROV with their desktop-sized Kickstarted underwater rover kit, bringing the ability to do underwater exploration to a new demographic, the amateur scientist. People quickly adopted their ROV for research, inspection, and to augment ocean adventures. The founders embody the core “maker” essence — two eternally curious minds that bonded on the promise creating a tool to help find lost treasure, and in doing so, created what quickly became the largest underwater robotics manufacturer, all run out of their Berkeley, Calif. offices. They iterated on the original design, pushing updates for better control and resolution, and in recent years launched a new Kickstarter for a new, refined and sleek underwater exploration platform called Trident. (Stackpole also starred on the cover of Make Vol. 34, and Lang authored the Make: book Zero to Maker.)
With their product, OpenROV also built a passionate community, centered on their OpenExplorer website (recently acquired by National Geographic). People gathered there to detail endeavors of all sorts — just just underwater — everything from building listening posts in the rainforest for illegal logging to building R/C sentries that chase hungry ravens away from hatchling desert tortoises.
There’s been a distinction between OpenROV’s products and the aerial drone segment, largely research over recreation. While there’s tremendous community using flying drones for science and commercial purposes, it’s an easy assumption that the bulk of the revenue generated by the various drone makers comes from tech collectors who are enthralled by a gadget that flies effortlessly over the roof of your house and gives you a perspective of the neighborhood you’d normally not see.
ROVs, on the other hand, require something slightly more challenging to come by: a body of water worthy of exploring. You could put one in your swimming pool… but you already know what’s in there. They’re really meant for launching off a dock or the side of a boat to help you find a sunken ship, to inspect underwater structures, or to check out the underwater life in new places. They’re controlled from an above-water control station, connected to the ROV by a physical tether, giving some bulk. If you want to bring one on your next Hawaii trip, you’ll want to plan for the extra baggage incurred. This is quite different than the latest iteration of folding drones that you can stash in the pocket of your hoodie.
With OpenROV’s first mover status in the segment, I’ve, perhaps naively, come to the mindset that there’s no reason for consumers to look for anything else, and perhaps that remains the case. With most of the companies showing new underwater options at CES being international, there’s no certainty that any of these will be widely available in all markets. But the competition has arrived, and in one specific case, they’re copying not just the exact look of the Trident, but even similarly calling theirs the Poseidon (and that company confusingly has named another of their products, an underwater scooter device, Trident as well).