“SoFar”, the Open Source, Underwater Drone

Almost anyone can afford to buy a drone these days.  Drone quality continues to rise while their prices become more affordable.  Toy drones can range from $5-$200 while drones with cameras can be found starting at around $200.  There is so much that can be done with these drones, the sky is literally the limit.  But, when it comes to using drones to explore the oceans there are far fewer options, especially if you are on a tight budget.  This is the exact issue that three guys found when trying to uncover a local legend about sunken treasure.

In the early part of the last decade an engineering intern for NASA, Eric Stackpole, decided to look into the legend of Hall City Cave in Northern California.  The story told of 100lbs of gold nuggets that were stolen from California gold miners in the 1800’s and hidden in an deep underwater cave.  The thieves were caught and the gold was never been retrieved.  Eric realized that with the progress of modern technology, like drones, reaching the sunken treasure could be possible.  The problem he was facing was that any of the underwater drones that could get the job done far exceeded his intern budget.  He began tinkering around in his garage for an alternate solution.  Word got out of his ideas and he was soon joined by David Lang, a self taught sailor, and roboticist Matteo Borri.

The trio went on to build a small, strong, underwater drone using materials that were easy to come by and most importantly, cheap.  In 2012 Eric and David founded OpenROV and introduced to the world their open source, budget friendly Remote Operated Vehicle.  With their finished ROV they set out to find some the sunken treasure.  And though the drone’s camera only found some common underwater debris, Eric and David found a different kind of treasure.  While going through the creation process of their project they realized just how important a tool like an affordable underwater drone could be.

Not only was OpenROV a story about how 3 guys teamed up to create something, but they made their creation open to the public in the hopes that others like them could use their concepts, make adjustments to fit their needs, and further ocean research.  OpenROV went on to become a community of individuals and groups looking to explore and educate themselves about the mysteries of the ocean.  In 2016 Spoondrift was formed as a way of democratizing information about ocean research through the use of shared data platforms.  In 2019 the two companies aligned and created a new company called Sofar.

According to their website, “Finding a common mission and complementary team skill set, Spoondrift and OpenROV merged to form Sofar and accelerate a future with better tools to understand and explore the ocean. The mission of the company is to create pervasive sensor networks to understand and monitor ocean environments and provide critical data for ocean enthusiasts, industry, and conservation.”  With the use of OpenROV’s drone called “Trident”, and Spoondrift’s  data platform called “Spotter”, Sofar is set to bring ocean study to a new level.  No longer will researchers be burdened by the constraints of equipment they cannot afford.  Sofar is creating a community that will dive to the depths of the ocean to gather as much data as possible to be shared worldwide.


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