ROV to PNG: Marine ecology via remote observation in Papua New Guinea

Latest update November 12, 2014 Started on October 15, 2014
The OpenROV is ready to become a powerful tool for marine science and conservation in the developing world. In partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea, we're bringing six marine ecologists, engineers, and explorers and 25 students from PNG to Kavieng for a month-long workshop on Marine Ecology via Remote Observation.

October 15, 2014
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In The Field

Note: we're home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren't able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from .

After more than a week of building robots, developing research proposals, presenting and defending their proposals to the class, and refine their methodology, it’s finally time to enter the field, sending our small fleet of robots out to explore marine ecosystems around Kavieng in New Ireland Province.

The fantastic student projects include: a survey of hard coral coverage around Nago Island to assess reef health; an assessment of garbage dumping around the Kavieng marketplace and other related areas; a test to determine if the electromagnetic fields of the OpenROV might attract sharks; a study of seagrass distribution and abundance of related seagrass species; a survey of seastars around Nago and Nusa islands; and an assessment of commercially important sea cucumber species in Kavieng Lagoon. All in all,an impressive array of diverse and challenging projects.

And these projects were challenging. Students weren’t just learning new fieldwork skills, they also needed to master flying the ROVs. Navigating through the rough surf, maintaining a straight and stable heading, controlling depth, recording video, watching for passing boats, and taking copious notes were all required of these 3 to 5 person teams.

They rose to the challenge, fixing robots in the field, adapting their sampling design to account for changes in the weather and unforeseen obstacles in the sea. The robots were not without their own problems. One robot flooded and needed a rebuild, others lost access to their IMUs (the internal sensor bank which feeds environmental data to the operator), some got tangled and needed a manual rescue. But after 3 days of heavy use, all six ROVs returned battered, but functional.

We ended class on the last day with student presentations. Each group presented their results, an impressive display of tenacity, teamwork, curiosity, and adaptability, the heart of what field science is about.


Its great to see inexpensive technology becoming a valuable tool in Marine and other sciences! I hope to hear more as you forging a new path for the next generation of young scientists.

Awesome! We're doing a very similar project out here in California. I wish we shared your wonderful location though!

Note: we're home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren't able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from .

With a week of robot building behind us, it’s time to put our robots, and our newly minted robot pilots to the test. Monday began with a day of tether management and pilot training. The OpenROV does not come with its own, pre-built tether management system; operators must design their own and adapt it to the unique challenges of their field environment. So we set the team off to develop their own tether management systems and the results were astounding, artistic, and clever.

With tethers securely managed, it was time for Erika’s Pilot Academy. As some teams continued to perform maintenance and troubleshooting, and some worked on their ecology projects, others were led, group by group, to the test tank, where Erika and Dominik had built a challenge course for them to fly. Without looking at the tank or robot, each student had to pilot an ROV around the tank, collect a weighted target, and bring it to the surface. Even for veteran OpenROV pilots, this exercise can be challenging. We closed out the first day of pilot training with 23 skilled pilots.

Salt water testing began the next morning, as each group, now divided into their ecology teams rather than their ROV build teams, set up their command center at one of three stations around the island. Instructors sat back, allowing the students to go through the complete pre-dive start-up routine, unaided. We felt tremendous pride as, one-by-one, each robot entered the waters and navigated around the reef, sand flats, and seagrass beds. Though we found a few bugs in a couple of robots, all were able to perform in salt water without failure.

And that’s a good thing, because that afternoon, we began the final phase of the program: ecology projects.


Note: we're home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren't able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from .

After a long week of intensive robot building, six brand new OpenROVs went into the water on Friday. Our student’s hard work paid off as their robots dove into the freshwater test tank. There are few things more rewarding than watching students, who’ve sweated over a difficult build while learning challenging new skills for 12 hours or more every day, launch their completed robots drive them around the test tank for the first time.

Of course, failure is part of our pedagogy, and two robots will require another day of troubleshooting before they can be released into the sea.

Friday also marked the first milestone for the student ecology projects. Each student took to the stage to present their research proposal to the class. From 23 excellent projects, the instructors narrowed it down to six proposals that will be developed into full research projects and implemented over the next week. After carefully deliberations, we picked the six that best fit into the limitations of a week long course and take advantage of the OpenROVs’ capabilities. This week, we’ll explore the diversity and distribution of commercial sea cucumbers in Kavieng lagoon, the effect of electromagnetic fields on sharks offshore, habitat structure of seagrass beds around Nago Island, impacts of marine debris around Kavieng town, abundance of hard coral coverage on local reefs, and temporal variability of sea stars in nearshore regions.

We’re looking forward to another exciting week of marine ecology via remote observation on Nago Island!


Note: Cross-posted from Southern Fried Science:

Hello from the warm, sunny island of Nago, home of the National Fisheries College field station and staging ground for Marine Ecology via Remote Observation, part of the Marine Science Short Course. My team and I arrived in Port Morseby on Friday, where we met with Jamie on her way home and and caught up with my former student, now lecturer at UPNG, Freddie Alei, who joins us for the next week of class. Another day of travel brought us to the shores of Nusa Island. We had our first chance to meet the students on Sunday, during a walk around the local beach, followed by an afternoon flying Independent Lee, one of our demonstration robots, from the Fisheries’ jetty. It was a nice warm up for an intensive week of robotics and marine ecology.

There are two major components to the portion of the Marine Science Short Course. The first, and most visible, is the construction and operation of the OpenROV, an open-source underwater robot that is incredibly adaptable and expandable. Over the last three days, students have learned how to solder, weld acrylic, test electronics, use epoxy resins, and work together to assemble the chassis, endcaps, battery tubes, motors, and brain of the robot. Excitement is mounting as we approach the moment when we can power up the ROVs for the first time.

Mid-day on the third day of building, as the robots began to look more like ROVs and less like piles of components, was the perfect moment to hold a naming ceremony. Each robot was christened with a Tok Pisin name. In a few days, Rasta Pis (octopus), NilPis (a local fish), Pismeri (mermaid), Meri Niuailan (woman from New Ireland), Iauro (slang for 'it's all good'), and Solwara (salt water) will dive for the first time. We ran the numbers, and on dive day, these six robots, combined with Indy, Phantom, and Thunder, will be the largest deployment of OpenROV’s in the field, ever.

Our group has taken to the slogan “failure is part of our pedagogy.” We want our students to complete this class not only with the knowledge to build and fly these robots, but also with the confidence to fix and troubleshoot problems as they arise. There’s only one way to teach that kind of adaptive, practical troubleshooting: stuff has to break. We’ve already overcome a few hurdles. Students have seen Dominik recover and repair a completely flooded OpenROV. Erika has pressed her robot, Phantom, into service, using parts of the chassis and end caps to replace components from the students kits. Independent Lee has become the course display model, being assembled and disassembled numerous times to demonstrate specific components and techniques.

In addition to building the robots, students also need the skills to use them as serious tools for marine ecological studies. Over the next week, students are developing, writing, and presenting grant proposals, both as individuals and in groups, to use the robots they’re building to study the marine environment around New Ireland. Discussions about writing marine ecology grants by myself are complemented by lectures on marine ecology, biodiversity, and community-supported ecology by Dr. Augustine Mungkaje, Dr. Amy Freitag, and Freddie Alei. All of which is in addition to a week of marine invertebrate zoology by Duke University graduate student Jamie Wagner.

As the robots come online and the class moves forward, we will transition from an intensive engineering class to an advanced field ecology course, with robots becoming the work horses for a series of novel investigations into the marine environment around New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

For an entertaining summary of the first week of the course, check out William Saleu's update:


Awesome! 6 excited for deployment day! (D-day?)

And question for Erika: how many times has Phantom had her end caps cannibalized at this point?

This is a great update! Excited to see the videos from the first dives.

Loved it. Hope to see more.

Erika "Echo" Bergman teaches kids to fly her OpenROV, Phantom, in Port Moresby.


Following Andrews example - well he arranged his things a lot nicer - here my packing list:
- Chromebook to control ROVs
- 2 pairs of swimmers
- Hat and sunglasses
- Dry bags (I like them to carry my cloths in them)
- Shirts and underwear for a few days
- Toiletry bag
- Beach towel (maybe we get a chance to get close to the sea :)
- GoPro with tray mound and light
- Goods for the ROV building workshop
- box with all kinds of cables and adapter for all those electricity hungry devices
- Rainjacket
- Notebook (paper), Notebook (computer) and red OpenROV hat
- Water bottle
- Jacket for the flight to net get a cold on the plane
- 'Thunder Down Under' in its travel carry on case

all ready to go!


Love the equipment layouts!

Haha, hilarious.

Ha! Glad to see the name stuck. Will there be a custom line of "Thunder Down Under" gear?

In a bit more than 7 hours I'll be on the way to Kavieng!

My name is Dominik and I'm part of Team PNG as a ROV building specialist and Software Developer. I'm writing a lot of Software for the OpenROV project and will be guiding interested participants on how to write their own extensions for the ROV.
In my other life I'm a Software Developer working in Sydney, Australia and care about all things in and about the Ocean and try to educate people about protecting this unique environment.

See you soon!


As we sit here in the airport, it seems like the opportune moment to introduce myself.

My name is Erika. I'm a submarine pilot, an avid ocean educator and explorer. I've joined Team PNG as part of the ROV build out team. I've been developing best practices and techniques for teaching OpenROV assembly in classrooms and workshops and am looking forward to sharing these methods with the 25 participants in our workshop in Kavieng.

Let's go diving.


That is such a great shot!!

Woo hoo!

It begins.

Team PNG is checked in for our flight from SFO to Brisbane Australia. We fly classy.


Erika loads up the flash drives with ROV software.


Oh the gear you'll bring.

We're getting our gear prepped and ready at the Thaler homestead. Here's what just Andrew is packing for this epic adventure.

From Left to right, top to bottom:
1. Indy, and everything she needs to fly.
2. My old Blundy steel-toed boots (perfect for travel).
3. (behind the camera) A surprise for out PNG collaborators.
4. More surprises for our PNG collaborators.
5. Keen sandals for everyday wear in the South Pacific.
6. My camera.
7. Passport et al.
8. A Hubsan microdrone, and everything we need to fly it. Good for quick and dirty aerial video.
9. Rainbow flip flops. Cool. Casual.
10. International power converter.
11. Case full of cords, chargers, and e-gizmos.
12. Camera charger.
13. Assorted bits for the ROV kits.
14. Flash drives. So many flashdrives.
15. Extra bag. For putting things in.
16. USB headset. For Skype/recording.
17. Syllabus and clipboard. For the classy, professorial look.
18. Gear bag. I've be schlepping this old REI monster across the planet for 15 years now. Tough.
19. OpenROV beenie. For opportunistic Life Aquatic moments.
20. USB charger.
21. Kindle.
22. Rechargeable batteries/USB charger. Also great for travel.
23. Go Pro Hero 3. For awesome.
24. Desiccant packs. For fog free viewing.
25. Power strip. For power.
26. Socks. For my feet.
27. Toiletries. For things other than my feet.
28. Foldy waterbottle.
29. Marine ecology textbook and notebooks. Sophisticated. Also, the best pens ever. Ask Karyn.
30. Cubes of clothes. I love cubes of clothes. (5 tshirts, 5 pair underwear, 3 shorts, 4 collared shorts. I'll wear my fancier shake-hands-with-diplomats duds on the plane).
31. A mysterious black bag... full of water quality probes. It wouldn't be a marine ecology class without a hand refractometer.
32. Raincoat.
33. Ditty bag with compass, flashlights, spork, headlamp, paracord. The basics.
34. First aid kit.
35. Travel pillow.

And that's it*!

*except for all the other stuff we will inevitably bring.


Eric and I were just talking about this. Pre-packing expedition shots are the best. A sub-genre of OE posts.

Thanks! I think these are super useful, too, since they help future expedition planners get an idea for what stuff is useful and serve as an itemized manifest for me when I do the pre-flight packing checklist.

The kelp is quite thick here. Indy keeps getting entangled in the ropey plant life. We're going to move to the other side of the peninsula.


We are out on the jetty with the fisherman. We've found the perfect pair of rocks to set up base camp.


In preparation for PNG we'll be live posting this afternoon from Bodega Bay!

Independent Lee "Indy" arrives in a custom ROV Pelican Case ready for her first salt water dive.


Fun bit of trivia, all my robots are named Something Lee in honor of my PhD advisor. We had Remote Lee, General Lee, Tins Lee, and now Independent Lee.

Hi! I'm Amy, and serving on the ROV2PNG team as the citizen science expert. That means I'm interested in the many ways to better understand our world, especially the ones that include as many people as possible. Ideally, those people will then go on to make their lives and communities in better harmony with that world.

OpenROV and its introduction to communities throughout Papua New Guinea is a perfect example of the potential for more kinds of people to contribute to our understanding of the ocean - especially in this region of the world where there's been little research attention. My role in our workshop will be to help all of us think about how to ask novel ecological questions that can include interested members of the public, children, and coastal residents.

Once, one of my collaborators who is also a commercial fisherman took this picture of me - describing the scene as very "sciencey". We were out taking water quality samples in the nursery grounds for his crab fishery. In advance of our workshop, I'd like to encourage everyone to think about what "sciencey" looks like to them.


That kayak is sleek! It's like a sneak attack kayak. Sneak up on that science girl.

Checking in after a week of prep.

The vast bulk of our gear is on it's way out to Papua New Guinea and we're prepping the last few additions to Indy to get her ready to go.

We has two big pushes this week: 1. Finishing the lesson plans for the ecology/biodiversity portions of our class and 2. get the list of additional needs finalized. Even with several months of planning and prep, there's always a few small bits of gear that slip through the cracks, which is why we did a full run-through of the ROV build process and a couple of field tests here. Simple things like desiccant packs, or nice-but-not-necessary components like vacuum pumps and ESC programmers are very easy to overlook. When prepping for an expedition of this size and complexity, sometimes the best thing you can do is simulate the entire process and take careful notes of each and every tool and consumable used.

Compared to all that, putting together a week's worth of lesson plans is simple.

Have you seen the new OpenROV website ( It's beautiful.

Below is a .gif of a waving seal at Point Reyes, just for fun.


Diving Lassen Volcanic National Park, Part II.

We couldn't resist dropping Indy in the incredibly clear, volcanic Lake Helen for a short dive on our way out of the park.

Diving Lassen Volcanic National Park.

With Independent Lee ("Indy") ready to dive, Amy and I took a road trip out to Lassen Volcanic National Park for some freshwater diving. After a mile-long hike in, we launched Indy in Manzanita Lake to see what we could find.

Lots of lake plants, but not much else as it turns out.

Indy performed perfectly, with only a few minor issues. She's not quite balanced in the water yet, the housing fogs up in cold water, and the white batteries reflect the high-intensity LEDs back into the camera, creating flares.


Wow that water does look clear! I'm up for an adventure to Lassen with Indy and Phantom. I have some good photos from our build day I'm happy to share. Want to add me as a collaborator?

Added! We need at least one more epic prep-venture before the big trip.

Indy hits the water for its inaugural wet test.


Building Independent Lee.

As part of our preparation for the course, Amy and I had Erika and Dominik lead us through a complete ROV build, from start to finish. The final product, our own OpenROV, the Independent Lee, which will travel to PNG with us to ensure that we have at least a couple out-of-the-box and ready to fly robots.

Expedition Background

In 1946, Jacques Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan released the Aqualung, forever changing the way humans interact with the oceans. No longer tethered to the surface, entombed in thick, restrictive helmets, we could dive deeper, stay down longer, and explore the dark places snorkelers and free divers feared to fin. The Aqualung opened up the ocean to an entirely new cohort. Ocean exploration, once the domain of well-resourced scientists, career explorers, and the wealthy elite, was now within the reach of the global middle class.

Buoyed by the Aqualung, Marine Science exploded. Marine life could be studied alive and in situ. Behavior could be observed rather than inferred from the stressed and shredded samples of a trawl. The ranks of marine biologists, oceanographers, and explores swelled to numbers that began to gradually approach the relative significance of the ocean to the living world.

We’re just getting started.

Marine science is on the brink of the greatest sea change since JYC and Gagnan introduced the Aqualung to the world.

In the last 3 years, the OpenROV has evolved from a humble Kickstarter kit to a powerful platform for democratizing science and removing barriers to ocean exploration. Beyond the low cost, which places OpenROV comfortably within the reach of even the most resource-limited organizations, the innovative software package can allow students, instructors, and explorers to access and drive an OpenROV from anywhere that internet is available. The closest competitor, the well-designed, yet expensive, Videoray Scout costs nearly 6 times as much and the complete package tips the scales at more than 70 pounds. I’ve driven both and OpenROV, though it demands a more experienced operator, is the more versatile robot. It’s not until you begin comparisons with major, science-class ROV’s—ROV Isis, Jason II, and the lost ROV Nereus—that you begin to surpass the experience of flying OpenROV.

OpenROV is only one facet of the growing Maker movement, harnessing human ingenuity and the desire for discovery to create tools to explore our world. The next century of marine exploration will be defined not by the research goals of the major institutions, but by the curiosity of an increasingly well-resourced maker community.

The OpenROV is ready to enter the scientific arena. After several years of hardware and software development, the tough little robot is ready to make a big splash in marine exploration, conservation, management, and even basic science.

We’re putting OpenROV to the test.

Not all institutions have access to ocean-class oceanographic vessels or multi-million dollars ROVs. Not all research questions can be answered using the narrow limits of a conventional SCUBA system. Not everyone who wants to explore the oceans can swim. We want to tackle the simple question: Can the OpenROV fill a critical equipment gap in marine science and conservation, particularly in regions with limited access to essential resources. To answer this question, we want to get the OpenROV into the hands of its core scientific users, early-career marine scientists, managers, and ocean explorers whose needs cannot necessarily be met by conventional marine ecologic studies.

We’re taking OpenROV to Papua New Guinea.

This October, I’m leading a small team of marine ecologists, engineers, and explorers to New Ireland, where we’ll meet up with colleagues and students from the University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific. As part of the successful Marine Science Short Course program, we’ll spend almost three weeks running a workshop on Marine Ecology via Remote Observation, where students will not only learn how to use the OpenROV to conduct research, but will build OpenROV’s from scratch, becoming experienced OpenROV technicians as they gain familiarity with the inner workings of these small but powerful robots. The vibrant reefs surrounding Kavieng provide the perfect backdrop for participants to test the capabilities of their new robots and hone their piloting skills as they develop and implement their own ROV-based research project.

The 6 ROVs built during the course, as well as all supporting hardware, will remain in Papua New Guinea, a permanent resource for Papua New Guinean ecologists.

This course represent both a tremendous challenge and opportunity for everyone involved. I genuinely believe that tools like OpenROV are going to play a pivotal role in the next century of marine science, conservation, and exploration. We’re just rising over the first wave of a long journey into the deep blue sea.

How can you get involved?

We’re not committing to any real-time outreach. The combination of unreliable internet connection and the shear intensity of running this course over barely three weeks means that both our bandwidth and our time will be limited. You can follow along with our preparation on the hashtag and we will attempt to provide updates here and through our expedition on OpenExplorer (an entirely separate revolution in citizen exploration). You can follow our team members on Twitter: @SFriedScientist, @BomaiCruz, @Erika_Bergman, @CodewithPassion, and @bgrassbluecrab (if small updates can be posted, they’ll be posted there).


I much look forward to hearing more about this expedition. I appreciate you sharing the Twiter handles of the participants; it will be great to follow along.

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