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Marine Ecology and Underwater Robotics in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

September 1 2017
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Enhancing scientific capacity for stakeholders within the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and providing a STEM learning experience for students and marine professionals in underwater robotics.

September 1 2017

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Debriefing Stage

The Friends of the Mariana Trench would like to express sincerest thanks to everyone whose invaluable contribution lead to the success of the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop last month.


“The Mariana Trench inspires the next generation of local explorers, engineers, and scientists.” said Laurie Peterka, secretary for Friends of the Mariana Trench. “But the success of this workshop is owed to our sponsors and partners who provided resources which allowed our eager participants to show up every day to learn.”

Through the support and commitment from many in the community, the Marianas is now home of the largest fleet of underwater OpenROV research robots and some of the most qualified OpenROV operators in the world. The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument was directly responsible for this opportunity being made available to our community. Marine protected areas such as the monument create incentives for scientists to conduct research because they provide a baseline against areas that are unprotected.

The Friends of the Mariana Trench in partnership with Northern Marianas Trades Institute hosted the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop on April 14-22, 2018. Contributed photo The Friends of the Mariana Trench in partnership with Northern Marianas Trades Institute hosted the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop on April 14-22, 2018. Contributed photo

OpenROV is short for open-source remotely operated vehicle and is a low-cost robotic underwater drone built with the goal of making underwater exploration, discovery, and education affordable and available to the masses. OpenROV is an open-source hardware project. By providing the list of the submarine parts and instructions on how to assemble them, the project aims to democratize underwater exploration.

The Friends of the Mariana Trench in partnership with Northern Marianas Trades Institute hosted the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop on April 14-22, led by Dr. Andrew Thaler and Dr. Stacy Baez. During the first week of the workshop eight facilitators learned how to build an underwater robot. These robots can be submerged in the ocean and contain a camera that can be used to observe the marine environment. Representatives from NMTI, Northern Marianas College, PSS (through Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance), CNMI Bureau of Environment and Coastal Quality, Okeanos Marianas, Underwater World Guam, and University of Guam Marine Lab were selected as facilitators. After the facilitators were trained, they taught 18 local students how to build and operate the machines. Students were recruited from Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam. Participants built six underwater robots. These robots were donated to the community and will now be in use across the CNMI and Guam.

The Friends would like to thank OpenROV for providing robot building kits. Special thanks to NMTI for workshop space, staff, and transportation assistance. Thanks to Seatouch-Saipan for providing access to its facility in front of the Fiesta Resort and Space, and the Fiesta Resort and Spa for their tremendous support. Okeanos Marianas provided transportation for field operations in the Saipan lagoon, and thanks to the crew who made the experience unforgettable for participants. Finally, thanks to the organizations, businesses, institutions of higher learning, and government agencies who provided facilitators to conduct the student workshop.

The workshop was made possible by a grant awarded to Dr. Thaler and Blackbeard Biologic through the NOAA Marine Educators Training Program. The Friends were selected to be the workshop’s logistical coordinator and facilitated Dr. Thaler with community outreach and participant selection as well as engaging local and community partners.

This press release originally appeared in the Marianas Variety.

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A short highlight video from our dive day in Outer Cove, featuring an old tire, some seagrass, and a wrecked barge that definitely doesn't contain nurse sharks.

The shark was there, just hiding

Over the past two weeks, I had the pleasure to work with, and learn from, a group of inspiring facilitators. Here is just a snapshot of the great crew we had on Saipan.


Mr. Roy Adsit is a science teacher who has been an inspiration to watch over the course of the workshop. Roy is a constant educator teaching safety protocols, team building and attention to detail to his group. We learned that Roy has taught many students over the years on Saipan including several of the parents who came to the final ceremony.

As an adjunct professor at Northern Marianas College, Erin Derrington is a super star builder and educator. She is excited to see the opportunities that these robots can bring to the community and hopes to bring greater environmental awareness to the CNMI.

Jerry Joseph is a facilitator who comes from a legacy of traditional navigation and sails on the Okeanos Marianas. Jerry is from Satawal and has been navigating since childhood. He hopes to merge the old with the new, using robotics to engage the younger generation to value the ocean and our environment.

Julia Berg, is a masters student at the University of Guam and was the only facilitator from the Guam. Julia is currently working towards bringing a similar workshop on the island and she has already taken her robot “Joybot” out in the field in Guam.

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Mission Underway

Every day, on our way to NMTI, we drove passed this mural. It perfectly captures the spirit of everything we're trying to do out here.


Protect the ocean by building the future we want to see.

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Our final task for the 2018 Marine Ecology and Underwater Robotics in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, delivering the final ROV to Mr. Roy Adsit at Saipan Southern High School.


He's already got the first field trip on the books for next Saturday.

With this hand-off, the underway portion of our mission is complete. Stick around though, because there will be plenty of debriefing to come!

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Finally, two Tridents are heading out to the CNMI once the pre-order queue is cleared at OpenROV HQ. Okeanos Marianas will receive one of those Tridents to help them further explore the waters around the CNMI. The second Trident will reside with the Friends of the Mariana Trench, who will ensure that it is made broadly available to the rest of the CNMI community.

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After an incredibly successful Earth Day event, we awarded students their certificates and presented the six ROVs to their receiving organizations.


The Northern Marianas Trade Institute, who provided classrooms, vans, and other facilities and sent us both facilitators and students receives 2 OpenROV 2.8s for use in their student programs and to be made available to the broader community.

The Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality, who sent 3 facilitators and provided tremendous support, receives an OpenROV 2.8.

The Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance, who provided logistical support and sponsored students, recieves an OpenROV 2.8, to be held and managed by Roy Adsit of Saipan Southern High School.

The University of Guam, in conjunction with the Underwater World of Guam, who sponsored a facilitator and a student, receive an OpenROV 2.8 for use in student research and education programs on the neighboring island of Guam.

And last, but certainly not least, the Okeanos Marianas, who now count one facilitator and one student among their crew, receive an OpenROV 2.8 to continue to explore the northern islands of the CNMI!

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As in all cases, we respect the OpenROV Prime Directive: If there's a kid anywhere nearby, they get to drive the robot.

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Love the focused intensity as students prep for their first dives.

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After 12 intensive days working with students and facilitators, Dr. Baez finally got a moment to take Trident out for some dives around the wrecked barge in Outer Cove.

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We launched our Earth Day Dive Day at Outer Cove. Between dives, participants did their part to pick up trash around the harbor.

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Robots are built. Shakedown is complete. It's time to dive!


(note: due to a glitch on the site, we're coming out with these updates a few days later).

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Dropping off one of the facilitators at the end of the day, we had the opportunity to check out some of the great art at Saipan Southern High School.

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A quick video of our adventures during the shakedown dives at SeaTouch.

With four newly built robots, we returned to SeaTouch for the final shakedown before deployment!

#ROVSaipan #FriendsMarianaTrench #SeatouchSaipan

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Friday, April 20, 2018

Laser Scaling


Every OpenROV (and almost every research or industrial ROV) comes with a pair of scaling lasers. Set 10 cm apart, scaling lasers allow the ROV operator to estimate the size of an object, fish, or seamonster while working underwater. Calibration of the scaling lasers is the final, and finickiest, step in an OpenROV build.

Due to the way lasers behave in water, the quality control of commercial laser units, and the trickiness of calibrating even the most expensive systems, laser scaling (and range finding if you want to do some trig), particularly on the OpenROV, is really only practical for order-of-magnitude estimates. Which is still an incredibly valuable measurement o have while piloting an ROV.

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A little island flare as the final pieces come together.

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It's the final day of building and these 4 robots are starting to look dive-ready!

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Good tether management requires the creative use of all available resources.

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My favorite part of any ROV build: watching students devise new and novel ways to mange the tether.

#ROVSaipan #FriendsMarianaTrench #NMTI

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Thursday, April 19, 2018

Building battery packs on day 2!

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Thursday, April 19, 2018

Another long and productive day. Lots of smiling faces as four new robots reach completion. I can't believe we only have 2 days left.

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Student build, day 2.

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Thursday, April 19, 2018

Students and facilitators are hard at work welding acrylic, soldering the electronics, and potting the housing. It's been an incredibly productive day.

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Workshop #2 Begins!

#ROVSaipan #SeatouchSaipan #FriendsMarianaTrench

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Wednesday, April 18, 2018

We were visited by a pair of baby spotted eagle rays during our morning demonstration dives.

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Marine Ecology via Remote Observation in Saipan, Phase II Begins!


We're back at SeaTouch to kick off our second workshop. This time the 8 instructors we spent the last week training are running the show, leading 18 students through the entire process, from first demo flight to final construction.

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Facilitator reflections - Julia Berg.


I started my training as an OpenRov workshop facilitator last Monday, when our group took the OpenRov 2.8 kit from "box to beach" in just over 48 hours. It has been an incredible and intense experience. While learning how to build and operate robots, I was also learning how to teach the very workshop I was taking. This resulted in a constant flow of teacher mental notes, popping up like text alerts on my brain. One of the more important notes, is on how to begin.

A good outreach program, like a good pop song, begins with a solid hook. There is simply no substitute for a hands-on, toe-tapping experience. An OpenRov workshop does not begin in a classroom, with pencils and a video. There are no workstations or PowerPoint slides. Instead, we literally dive right in.

My first workshop began on a dock at the SeaTouch facility, in Saipan CNMI. As beautiful stingrays flashed their wingtips, I was handed the controls to the new Trident ROV. A complete nerd, I already knew all the specs and was quivering with excitement. The Trident is everything that you hope for, and more. The "Cadillac" of the fleet, she dove and barrel rolled, all the while streaming amazing video to the tablet in my hands. As people arrived for the day, we all took turns. Each pilot taught the next, a classic “each one, teach one” approach. It got us talking to teach other, and was a great icebreaker.

Next, it was over to try out the OpenRov 2.8, the robot that we would be building. With a clear housing, the whirring motors and lights looked cheerful as she darted through the coral. I know that my mind was spinning with possibilities for these little machines, and it was clear that everyone on that dock was thinking the same thing. We were already hooked. Well played, Dr. Thaler, well played.

Of course, you can’t build a robot on the beach so were given workstations at a nearby marine training facility. We were divided into two teams, given some advice, and turned loose to experience the build at our own pace. I have never built anything remotely close to a robot, although I did assemble a really complicated IKEA dresser a few years ago. You will be relieved to know that OpenRov has much better instructions than IKEA. All joking aside, there was a broad mix of abilities in our group, but many of us were complete neophytes.

I know my students will gain life skills during this building process, and learning how to pronounce “solder” will definitely be one of them. They will also learn how to solder, which is extremely important in our world of circuitry. Although, I think the real skills are less physical, like how to work in a group, and the intense of feeling of accomplishment that comes from building a robot that can operate 100 meters underwater.

We built for about 6 hours the first day until we were stopped in our tracks to wait for curing epoxy. The second day was longer, about 8 hours. And then they were powered up, calibrated, and ready for the water. Box to Beach in just two days. So, it was time for Dive Operations.

I can’t imagine a more unique opportunity for our first dives than on board the Marianas Okeanos. The blend of modern and ancient sailing techniques are so perfectly integrated into this vessel that the robots didn’t even seem out of place. Although, the juxtaposition of old and new was not lost on us.

The conditions were a bit choppy, and I was secretly sure the 2.8 would go completely sideways in the current. Once we got a technical issue sorted with the internal compass, this was not the case. She went right up the anchor line a perfectly straight line, like the little workhorse that she is. Surprisingly, the Trident had a bit more trouble, as she is so sporty she was easily knocked off course if not driven carefully. As Dr. Thayer says, they are different robots, for different jobs. And as I say, both are pretty AWESOME.

We have passed the halfway point in this weeklong workshop, and now the real work begins. Tomorrow morning, we will repeat this experience with a group of 20 students. They will become the builders, the visionaries, and the explorers, with their own machines. The beating heart of this program is the spark it provides for our imaginations. I know they will have innovative ideas, and big plans for these little robots in the CNMI. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.

Follow Julia on twitter @LiveOcean!

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An iconic meeting between two legendary vessels.


It dawned on me during this voyage how similar these seemingly vastly different programs are. The Foundation for the Sea not only builds traditional voyaging canoes, but trains local crews in order to past on and continue the legacy of Wayfinding throughout the Pacific by passing those skills on to the next crew.

Meanwhile, we're here not just building ROVs, but training local instructors to lead their own ROV workshops, ensuring that that expertise remains in Saipan after Stacy and I fly back to the mainland, passing those skills on to the next set of ROV technicians.

It's a perfect pairing of tradition and technology.

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Laurie did a little interview with folks as we set out for our sail.

Saipan lagoon, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands ...warning... sorry about wind noise ...no mic filter on phone

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Sunday, April 15, 2018

Following a successful day of ROV ops, we took the Okeanos Marianas for a sail around the lagoon and got the try our hands at the oar.

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A quick video from our training dives, including a surprise visit by some spotted eagle rays!

A bird's eye view of our approach to the Lady Carolina.

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ROV ops aren't just about dropping bots in the water. When I run an operation, there are always three people involved: a pilot, who is often situated below deck where it's easier to see the screen; a tether manager on deck who is responsible for launch and recovery, paying out tether, and watching for surface hazards; and a runner, whose job is to relay communications between the two, the rest of the crew, and to maintain safety aboard ship.


This means that the pilot can't see the robot and the tether manager can't see what the robot sees. It makes good, clear communication absolutely essential. But it also ensures that everyone is focused on their particular tasks. Once an ROV team finds their rhythm, the entire process feels casual and effortless.

To add an extra hurdle to this process, because my background is in Experiential Education, for training expeditions, each pilot has to train the next pilot in how to fly the ROV.

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Our first set of ROV deployments went off flawlessly, with nearly 3.5 hours of run time on one robot.

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The Lady Carolina


The Lady Carolina is an 83-foot long-lining vessel. In 2015, during Typhoon Soudelor, it broke free from it's moorings and grounded on a small patch reef in the Saipan shipping channel. Since then, removal efforts have been slow. Meanwhile, the massive wreck continues to impact the marine environment while providing a visible, tangible reminder of one of Saipan's most violent storms.

We selected the Lady Carolina as a test site for our first marine operations both because it was already a heavily impacted environment and to demonstrate the utility of ROVs for salvage and marine monitoring programs.

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The art adorning every surface of the Okeanos Marianas is absolutely stunning.

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Let me show you our boat


This is Okeanos Marianas. Built by the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, Okeanos Marianas is a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe designed to ferry passengers and cargo throughout the Marianas Islands, Guam, and across Micronesia. She is part of a larger movement to bring back traditional voyaging and wayfinding to the Pacific and maintain the ancient connections between island cultures.

She is a stunningly beautiful boat.

In addition to her traditional sail, Okeanos Marianas comes equipped with twin engines that run on coconut oil (with just a dash of diesel) and has an array of solar panels to power her systems. She is sailed using the stars along with the skill of her navigator (her GPS unit is only there for emergency backup).

This is the Pacific's boat. There is no better vessel for journeying through these islands. It was an honor to sail on her, if only for a day.

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Lucky! That's a big dream of mine to sail on. And a Trident deployment! So cool...

This voyage was a career highlight for me!

Incredible. Do you have any videos of the deployment?

Oh, but do we have video. Just taking me a bit to find time to edit them since they are quite long. But we've got spotted eagle rays for you ;-)

May you fail in interesting ways


During normal OpenROV workshops, we have an elf that magically repairs any small issues the night before ocean operations. For most students, the workshop is their one opportunity to build an ROV and we want to make sure everything goes flawlessly. There's nothing quite a heart-wrenching as working hard to build something so complicated and than watching it flood and fail on the first dive.

But this workshop is different, because stating in 3 days, our facilitators will be both instructors and magic elves for the next group of students (and, hopefully, for many students to come), so it's important to see how things can fail and talk about how to fix them. This is now my fifth major workshop and my 20th 2-series ROV and, while I've seen builds fail in very interesting ways, I've never seen one fail that could not be repaired (remember Honeycomb?).

Every new issue is unique and this one is no exception. Somehow, during the final battery tube stage, the epoxy used to seal it in did not fully mix, so rather than a hardened epoxy armor, there was a soft, gooey blob of semi-hard resin. This caused the back of the endcap to blow out under strain from having batteries loaded. It must have happened slowly after we cleaned up for the day, because we didn't see it on final inspection.

How do we fix it? This one is simple. More epoxy around the edges, which Stacy and I took care of yesterday evening before doing a prolonged soak test to check for any other leaks.

On a student workshop, we wouldn't even mention this unless someone noticed the repair, but for the facilitator training, we'll spend some time discussing how to avoid this happening during the next workshop.

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Just a few more steps and this ROV will be ready to dive.


It's been an incredible, exhausting few days, but this group is keeping me energized. Tomorrow, we go to sea to plumb the wine dark deep.

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These machines are starting to look quite a bit like ROVs!

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With the battery tube epoxy setting, it's time for a delicious lunch break.

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This morning we're kicking things off with wire routing. This the last step before the robots start looking like robots. It's an exiting moment.

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Laurie from Friends of the Monument was out documenting our auspicious beginning.

#ROVSaipan #FriendsMarianaTrench

Posted by Mariana Trench Marine National Monument on Friday, April 13, 2018

A quick video from the training dives in the Fiesta Seatouch enclosure.

After a long day of robot building, we concluded just a little bit ahead of schedule (and a lot ahead of the build schedule). Over the last 8 hours, our 8 facilitators fabricated acrylic structural components, soldered lights and lasers, build the robots brains, fabricated an electrical pass-through in the water-tight housing, and prepped everything for tomorrow. There's no doubt that we'll be in the water diving Saipan's newest observation-class ROVs tomorrow.


Which will make our Monday research voyage even more exciting.

This is the first time I've done a "train the trainer" workshop, with 8 dedicated facilitators who will, very shortly, be running their own OpenROV workshop with students from across the CNMI. I am blown away by the skill sets represented in this room, from electrical engineers to environmental scientists to traditional navigators.

Running a program like this is expensive, but nearly half the cost is just bringing out Dr. Baez and myself to run the workshop. One of our biggest goals is to create the capacity within Saipan and the CMNI so that they can run the next workshop internally, with local instructors leading the way.

In other words, like all 21st century roboticists, my goal is really to make myself obsolete.

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Soldering, of course, is my second favorite part of the 2.8 build process.

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Acrylic welding is my favorite part of the OpenROV build. We finished off the morning by fabricating all of the structural components of two new 2.8s.

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Morning with sting rays.


We did our morning training dives in the Seatouch enclosure. This was our facilitators first chance to see the robots in action and get an idea of what they will be building and what they are capable of. An hour with OpenROV2.8 and Trident before an intensive build workshop is a great way to start a program like this.

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Good Morning from the Fiesta Center for Robotic Excellence, Saipan.


Fresh from 32 hours in the air, lots of bumps and jostles and shakes and strain, these robots are ready to dive. Always after a long flight and before marine operations I like to give my robots a quick bath. This lets me check all the seals and systems to make sure nothing shook loose during the flight and gives us one last chance to wash off any travel grime before dropping robots in the ocean.

Today, our 8 Facilitators (the local instructors we're training to teach future workshops and oversee the donated robots) will get a chance to fly both ROVs, and then we're building for the next 2 days!

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Forward into the deep.


If you sail straight out from this point, in only a few miles you'll find yourself hovering over the deepest crack in the world.

We often think of the Mariana Trench as some remote ocean feature way out in the middle of the sea, but it's not. People live, work, and fish right at the edge of the abyss.

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That's really amazing. So you're functionally standing atop one of the tallest mountains of the world.

Checking in at the Northern Marianas Trade Institute, our host for the next week. We did a quick inventory of tools and parts to ensure our first workshop runs smoothly.

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Robots, Ocean Research and Sustainable Skills Development.
The Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument are pleased to announce the selection of twenty students for the second part of our Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop. During this second half of our program, students will receive training in the construction, operation, and maintenance of observation-class remotely operate vehicles (ROVs, also known as underwater drones or underwater robots). These students will be taught by eight local facilitators trained in train-the-trainer portion of our workshop.

Over a span of four days, students from Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam will construct research-grade ROVs and learn skills such as soldering electronics, acrylic fabrication, and building underwater housings while learning the fundamentals of marine ecology using underwater vehicles. Students will then have the opportunity to take the robots out in the field to conduct surveys and gain a greater understanding of how underwater robots can be used to compliment ocean research and monitoring programs. This model provides an intensive STEM-education opportunity for students while establishing a sustainable, long-term robotics program in the CNMI through facilitator training.

At the conclusion of this program, six ROVs will be presented to select community groups within the CNMI, such as the Okeanos Marianas, for community-driven ocean monitoring, research, and exploration. This project is being conducted in collaboration with Northern Mariana Trades Institute (NMTI) as the main host along with other community partners.

The student portion of this workshop will commence April 19 and end April 22. The public is welcome to view field operations in the afternoon on the last day of the workshop – save the date, April 22 – Earth Day! Location will be announced next week.

This workshop is made possible through a NOAA grant awarded to Dr. Andrew Thaler, a Friends member and marine and conservation scientist. The workshop is coordinated by the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument and hosted by Northern Marianas Trades Institute.

Demonstrations and field ops are being hosted by Seatouch-Saipan.

This press release first appeared in the Marianas Variety: Robots, ocean research and sustainable skills development.

We have arrived!
Dr. Baez and I landed in Saipan late last night with all our gear in tow. Now that we're finally here, we have a day of on-the-ground prep work.

The first Saipan ROV workshop starts tomorrow!

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Preparation Stage

Minimizing the Spread of Invasive Species


One of the big potential hazards of traveling around the world with these ultra-portable microROVs is the risk of invasive species piggy-backing on our equipment. In the photos below, you can see sand trapped around the end of a battery tube after a dive in Miami, a limpet clinging to the housing following operations in Chile, and three different invasive species that now occur in Lake George in upstate New York. Without proper care and cleaning following each dive, it would be easy to accidentally transport an invasive species to a new ecosystem.

In response to this hazard, following the ROV to PNG workshop in 2014, we developed a set of comprehensive guidelines for Minimizing the Spread of Invasive Species via microROV. These guidelines include education, specific cleaning protocols, and, most importantly, recommend doing exactly what we're doing in Saipan: purpose building ROVs to be used only in the surrounding ecosystems. By eliminating transport between ecosystems, you eliminate the risk of species invasion.

Only one of the ten robots coming to Saipan will have even been in any other body of water, and the one straggler is my personal robot, which has undergone an extensive cleaning protocol prior to travel.

You can read our full paper here: Robots as Vectors for Marine Invasions: Best Practices for Minimizing Transmission of Invasive Species Via Observation-Class ROVs

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Local Students to Learn About Ocean Exploration Using Robots


(Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands) –– Robots have been used to explore the deepest reaches of the Mariana Trench in recent years. This month, local students will have the chance to learn the basics of underwater exploration using drones provided by a federal grant.

The Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument are pleased to announce the selection of facilitators for the Marine Ecology Via Remote Observation Workshop. During this program, facilitators will receive training in the construction, operation, and maintenance of observationclass remotely operate vehicles (ROVs, also known as underwater drones or underwater robots).

Facilitators will then participate in a student-training workshop where they will instruct students from junior high, high schools, Northern Marianas College (NMC) and Northern Mariana Trades Institute (NMTI). Facilitators and students will also have the opportunity to take the robots out for field work at Seatouch in Garapan (and possibly other active research sites in Saipan) to conduct surveys and gain a greater understanding of how underwater robots can be used to compliment ocean research and monitoring programs. This model allows not only an intensive STEM-education opportunity for students in Saipan, but by providing training for local and regional facilitators, helps to establish a sustainable, long-term robotics program in the CNMI.

At the conclusion of this program, six ROVs will be presented to select community groups within the CNMI for community-driven ocean monitoring, research, and exploration. This project is being conducted in collaboration with NMTI as the main host along with other community partners including Seatouch and Okeanos Marianas.

The selected facilitators are:

  • Mr. Jerry Joseph, 500 Sails/Okeanos Marianas
  • Ms. Erin Derrington, Northern Marianas College
  • Mr. David Benavente, Northern Marianas College
  • Mr. Claus Bier, Northern Mariana Trade Institute
  • Mr. Rodney Camacho, CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality
  • Mr. Robert Jordan, Koa Consulting LLC
  • Mr. Roy Adsit, Saipan Southern High School
  • Ms. Julia Berg, University of Guam Marine Lab

The workshop will commence April 14 and end April 22 – Earth Day!

This workshop is made possible through a NOAA grant awarded to Dr. Andrew Thaler, a Friends member and marine and conservation scientist.

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Another day, another attempt to reduce all sources of needless waste before we head out to Saipan. On the left, 2 shipments of tools and consumables. On the right, all the waste packaging (mostly blister packs) that we removed. Yes, they take up roughly the same amount of space.


I don't see nearly enough expeditions talk about how they handle trash before deployment. Lots of great solutions are devised during expeditions, but the easiest and most effective way to keep garbage out of wild and remote places is not to bring it with you in the first place.

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This year's all schools STEM Fair finals for graded K-12, were held at Cha Cha Ocean View Middle School. Saipan; the capitol of the Northern Mariana Islands.


Laurie Peterka, representing the Friends of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, set up an outreach table to engage with students about OpenROV underwater robotics.

"We thought it a great opportunity to recruit interested students for the workshop that Dr. Thaler will be teaching here in Saipan in April," Peterka said.

The event lasted from about 9am to 1pm. During the 5-hour stretch, Peterka noted that she entertained numerous inquiries from all ages of people who stopped by to see what OpenROV was about. A sign up sheet was out for people who wanted to be considered for student participation.

Peterka noted, "Our videos were very popular and we ended up with about 25 on our sign up sheet."

The Friends goal is to make sure to capture a wide range of interest, especially in the public school system, to reach those who are most eager to participate in learning about robotics building. There will be at least one more outreach event this month.

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Practice and Backups


Meet Dr. Stacy Baez! Dr. Baez will be joining me as co-instructor for the ROV workshops. In preparation, we worked through our syllabus for the course while building a "just in case" back-up robot in the event that something goes wrong with one of the kits during the workshop.

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One of the big challenges with running a workshop like this on a fairly remote island is that things like ROV kits, tools, and consumables come with huge amount of packing materials. This wastage ends up in landfills, incinerators, and, ultimately, the sea. We want to bring tools, skills, and resources to Saipan, but we don't want to export our trash there, too.


This is why it's important to do everything we can to reduce the packaging waste before we ship equipment to Saipan. Last week, I spent a good bit of time repacking all the tools and some consumables into small, waste free, containers ready to ship.

Would you be surprised to learn that, by weight, needless packing material exceeded the weight of the actual tools?

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Expedition Background

In the last decade, the financial cost of conducting marine research has declined by several orders of magnitude and tools once restricted to the most well-funded institutions have become affordable to grass-roots organizations as well as individual stakeholders. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the production of the OpenROV, a low-cost observation-class ROV (remotely operated vehicle). OpenROVs have been used to conduct studies on marine invasive species, establish marine protected areas, and survey historic shipwrecks.
Saipan and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are uniquely situated near the Mariana Trench and surrounding Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Despite access to vibrant and diverse marine resources, the capacity to conduct community-driven scientific research, ocean conservation, and fisheries resource management is relatively limited. While national and international research teams use advanced underwater robots to study and explore the regions around the CNMI, there are no marine robotic assets within the Commonwealth dedicated solely to community-driven ocean research and education. While not capable of diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a small fleet of accessible observation-class microROVs can be of significant benefit to scientists, citizen scientists, managers, and other ocean stakeholders in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The OpenROV 2.8 ships as a kit to be assembled by the end user. This presents a tremendous opportunity for STEM education programs that teach robotics, electronics, soldering, and coding, as well as marine science. OpenROV Trident is a more advanced ROV which can be used to supplement and expand research projects conducted using OpenROV 2.8s. In conjunction with a long-term management plan, this offers the potential to create a holistic marine robotics education program that not only trains students to use underwater robots but introduces them to careers in marine technology and provides the technological capacity to pursue those careers.

This structured capacity-building workshop model was tested in Papua New Guinea in October, 2014. Twenty-three undergraduates from the University of Papua New Guinea joined two marine ecologists, two robotics technicians, and several faculty members from UPNG at the Nago Island Research Facility in Kavieng, New Ireland, to construct 6 OpenROV 2.6 microROVs and learn how to design and implement marine ecologic surveys. Robots from that program were then donated to various stakeholder groups where they were used to survey coral reef biodiversity, monitor garbage accumulation in local lagoons, and track sea cucumber recovery following a national fishing ban (personal communication with W. Saleu, our PNG organizer for that program, and P. Minimulu, director of the Nago Island Research Facility).

Similar, though less intensive workshops were conducted with high school students in Gloucester Point, Virginia, in conjunction with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia SeaGrant and, most recently, at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, Louisiana. We also recently completed a series of educational ROV experiences throughout the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, where we presented recent discoveries from the Mariana Trench to local student groups and then invited them to join us at local beaches and harbors to learn to fly ROVs and get a hands-on experience in how research is conducted using underwater robots.

Project Goals and Objectives The goals of this project are to:

  • Conduct two intensive workshops in marine ecology via remote observation in which community leaders and students learn to build, maintain, and operated observation-class microROVs and develop the skills to design and implement a marine research or education program using ROVs.
  • Provide a minimum of 4 OpenROV 2.8 microROVs and 1 OpenROV Trident for community-driven research in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

To achieve these goals, we will:

  • Identify 2 to 3 community leaders in Saipan and conduct an intensive ROV-building workshop with a focus on teaching, facilitation, and long-term management.
  • Host a second ROV-building workshop in which students, under the direction of Thaler and community leaders from the first workshop, and one additional technician construct at least 3 OpenROV 2.8 observation-class microROVs.
  • Use the ROVs to conduct student-designed marine ecologic surveys under the supervision of mentors and local community leaders.
  • Deliver the ROVs to local community groups for use in community-driven research and education program.

We don't ship out to Saipan until Spring 2018, but there's plenty of work to do on identifying community leaders, preparing hardware, and perfecting lesson plans in the lead up to this adventure.

This grant was funded by the NOAA Marine Education Training Mini-Grant program.

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Hi Andrew, are there opportunities to volunteer with your efforts?