Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Open Source World
About David Lang's TED Talk
David Lang became an amateur oceanographer by getting a network of ocean lovers to team up and build open source, low-cost underwater explorers.
About David Lang
David Lang is the co-founder of OpenROV, a community of citizen ocean explorers who build small remote-operated underwater robots. Lang is also the author of Zero to Maker and a 2013 TED Fellow.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Our show today, Open Source - how universal access to an idea can lead to things and places we never thought possible.
DAVID LANG: I'd never been inside of a cave at all before this. And they're really, really stark.
RAZ: This is David Lang. And for eight months, he and some friends had been preparing to explore this one cave.
LANG: It's about six hours north of San Francisco.
RAZ: And there's no, like - no one lives around there? There's just like, a - it's like, a place on the map?
LANG: It's a - that's a very good way to describe it. It's a place on a map, and that's about all we had, was a map.
RAZ: This was back in 2012, but what brought David to that cave, that story began years earlier. David had moved to LA from the Midwest to follow his dream of sailing around the world, even though he'd never even been on a sail boat before.
LANG: But I just had this idea that this is something I wanted to do. So I drove out California, begged my way into this job with this sailing school, learned how to sail and ended up teaching sailing lessons and doing sailing trips around the world. It was an exciting four years after college.
RAZ: That's cool. So you really know how to sail now?
LANG: I do, I know how to sail. I've lived on a boat...
RAZ: The point is, David was never the kind of guy who was, you know, afraid to knock on doors and say hey, you know, I don't know how to do this, but I want to. Help me out.
So a couple years after that - he was still living in LA - David met a guy named Eric Stackpole, and Eric was also looking for some help.
LANG: And when I met Eric, the first thing that came out of his mouth...
LANG: ...Was this story of this cave.
RAZ: What do you remember about the story?
LANG: So the story dated back to the Gold Rush. The story was that there was two Native American men who had robbed this gold-mining operation. And they had made off with about a hundred pounds of gold. So a lot of gold.
LANG: And that they were fleeing into the mountains, and the sheriff's posse was on the trail. And they threw the gold into this underwater cave, so it wouldn't weigh them down, so they could get away faster. They ended up getting caught, and the sheriff asked them where they put the gold. And they said they hid it in the Hall City Cave.
RAZ: David was instantly in. They were going to find that gold in the Hall City Cave, but they had no idea where it was or how to get there so they just Googled it.
LANG: And then we found this story from this treasure hunter online who had found this cave and had tried to get to the bottom and had almost died and had said, I'm never going back to that cave.
RAZ: But Eric and David did go to that cave.
LANG: And sure enough, you go to the back of this limestone cave and there's this puddle of water. And you shine a light and it just goes down, down, down, down, down and you can't see the bottom of it.
RAZ: So there could be, like, a hundred pounds of gold down there underwater. And Eric is like, I want to find it.
LANG: He said he's going to find it, but, more importantly, he's going to make this tool to go and find it.
RAZ: David would spend the next eight months working with Eric to build that tool. And the tool was an ROV, a remote operated vehicle. These are not new. They're used by oil and gas companies for exploration and construction underwater, but those ROVs cost tens of thousands of dollars. And David and Eric were trying to build one in a garage out of hardware store parts, as David explained on the Ted stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LANG: So Eric had an initial design idea for a robot, but we didn't have all the parts figured out. So we did what anybody would do in our situation. We asked the Internet for help. More specifically, we created this website, openrov.com and shared our intentions and our plans. For the first few months, it was just Eric and I talking back to each other on the forums. But pretty soon, we started to get feedback from makers and hobbyists and then actually professional ocean engineers who, you know, had some suggestions for what we should do.
RAZ: But you knew nothing about, like, computers, or - I guess...
LANG: Electronics and software.
RAZ: ...Electronics, software?
LANG: No, I was not technical at all.
RAZ: Like, soldering irons?
LANG: Yeah, and I think there's a special magic to not knowing what you're doing and being honest about that.
RAZ: What happened when David and his friend simply asked for help was that they didn't just hear from people with great ideas.
LANG: It was people who had actually tried something out. They said hey, I just tried this out in my pool or in the ocean near where I live, and it worked.
It was better than just getting ideas, it was getting solutions.
RAZ: And so after eight months of tinkering on their underwater robot in a garage, prototype after prototype after prototype...
LANG: It just reached this point where the only thing left to do was to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERIC STACKPOLE: Where are we right now?
LANG: Right now we're in the Hall City Cave, kind of near Redding, Calif. It's a cave way up in the Trinity Alps.
RAZ: And so on their 21st prototype...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LANG: That means I've built 20 ROVs before this. I'm perfecting the design almost every time.
RAZ: David and what had become a team of friends went back to the Hall City Cave and put their little underwater robot...
LANG: Like, the size of a toaster oven I would say.
RAZ: Equipped with a couple of lights and a small camera tethered to a hundred-foot cable...
LANG: It was really this...
RAZ: Into the water.
LANG: ...Moment of pride because it wasn't just that we were exploring the unknown, but we were going there with this tool that we had built.
RAZ: In fact, that day David and his friends almost forgot about the gold and why they were there in the first place because what was even more exciting, as their robot moved through the water toward an opening that would take them successfully into the cave itself, was that because of all the people who had helped them get there, they felt like a part of something bigger.
LANG: Yes. We sent it down and everyone is kind of collectively holding their breath. It's a very quiet moment where anything can happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Slowing the ascent.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're going through. You're through...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Laughter) That is so cool. All right, I'm making a descent.
RAZ: OK, spoiler alert here because David and his partners did not find any gold in that cave. But the open-source model they used to get there left them with a question, a question that would never have been able to ask if they hadn't had help from thousands of people all over the world.
LANG: What if there were thousands of these devices and that anybody could, you know, just get online or go and meet people and get sucked into one of these adventures?
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LANG: So about that time, our little expedition became quite a story, and it got picked up in The New York Times. And we were pretty much just overwhelmed with interest from people who wanted a kit that they could build this ROV themselves. So we decided to put the project on Kickstarter. And when we did, we raised our funding goal in about two hours and all of a sudden had this money to make these kits. But then we had to learn how to make them. I mean, we had to learn small-batch manufacturing. So we quickly learned that our garage was not big enough to hold our growing operation. But we were able to do it. We got all the kits made. Thanks a lot to TechShop, which was a big help to us. And we shipped these kits all over the world. But we're still publishing all the designs online, encouraging anyone to build these themselves. That's the only way that we could have done this. By being open-source, we've created this distributed R-and-D network, and we're moving faster than any venture-backed counterpart. But the actual robot is really only half the story. The real potential, the long-term potential is with this community of DIY ocean explorers that are forming all over the globe. What can we discover when there's thousands of these devices roaming the seas?
RAZ: David Lang and his company OpenROV have sold thousands of their open-source ROVs to people all over the world. These things can dive over 300 feet. They shoot high-quality video and they only cost about 900 bucks, which is a fraction of their commercial counterparts. And David says who knows what they could find on a planet that is 70 percent water.
LANG: To give you an example, there are about 200 shipwrecks in the San Francisco Bay that have not been discovered. I mean, we've gone off several times, and we go in and look at old maps, try and read old documents at historical societies and try and figure where some of these shipwrecks are. But to go out on the boat and to know that we're looking for this piece of history that no one else has been able to find, that's a feeling that's - oh, it just gets me excited.
RAZ: I mean, we're almost - in some ways, we're, like, going back to that age of discovery, where, like, anybody could be a scientist or an explorer or an astronomer because they just went out and did it. And now, like, the tools are available to people, and they're pretty cheap.
LANG: I like that. I think you're right. It is this new age of discovery. You have to realize though that, you know, we've been doing this now for four years. And I tell - I still tell this story once in a while of how we got started in the search for gold and Kickstarter and the whole story. And I can't help but giggle when I tell it because it still seems so unbelievable. And the best part about it is that it's not just ours. It's all of these people that are a part of it. And so I always talk about this, that we've created this dream. But it's a collective dream that we're all participating in, that we're all working on together.
RAZ: David Lang runs openrov.com. They recently launched a crowdfunded campaign to build a new version of the robot. They needed about 50,000 bucks to start. They raised almost three-quarters of a million. You can see David's short talk at ted.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I GET SOME HELP")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) There's a whole lot of people standing over there. I've got to prove, I've got to show - can I get some help? Can I get some help? Can I get some help? Can I get some help?
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show this week, Open Source. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.