To the depths of the Ladakh lakesMay 1 2017
Tso Kar and Tso Moriri are among the world's highest lakes, lying on the trans-Himalayan plateau within Indian territory. Using the OpenROV 2.8, which we've named Matsya, we're going to map these lakes and contribute to the scarce science around them. This expedition will also raise awareness about the conservation of the wetlands and rare wildlife that these lakes support.
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To test how OpenROVs perform at high altitudes, as a precursor to the eventual expedition to Ladakh, I took Matsya up to the Himalayas this past weekend. It was a long holiday because of the Diwali break, and with rising pollution levels here in Delhi, it was the perfect time to get out of the city and head up to the wilderness. We'd chosen Bhrigu Lake in Himachal Pradesh as the dive site; it's a small glacial lake at 4200m asl, and anecdotal evidence (from Wikipedia and TripAdvisor) suggested that it never freezes completely over.
Pre-trip, I re-wound the wire onto a new spool, charged the 6 batteries, made sure the OpenROV was working perfectly and then sealed the main and battery tubes. I did this for a few of reasons; firstly, it gets dusty up in the mountains, and I wanted to expose the electronics to the minimum of dust. Secondly, I've worked at high altitudes before, and fatigue sets in quickly; I wanted to have as little technical work as possible at the dive site itself. And finally, I wasn't sure how deep the dive would be, so I preferred to play it safe and have the tubes pressurised at sea level, as opposed to at 4200m, where the atmospheric pressure is approximately half that at sea level. I also charged my laptop completely then sealed it in a plastic bag. I use a 15" MacBook Pro (early 2011), in which I'd replaced the hard disk drive (HDD) with a solid state drive (SSD) a few years ago. Using HDDs above 3000m is not recommended, because the low pressure means that there isn't enough of an air cushion for the disk to spin. If you do try starting up an HDD at high altitudes, apparently what you're most likely to hear is a crunch as the reading head tries to eat the spinning disk.
For most treks up to the mountains, I usually pack a 2-man tent, a sleeping bag and a petrol stove, along with cold-weather clothing and supplies. This time, I also had the OpenROV and the MacBook, which quite honestly I never thought I'd be lugging up a mountain.
We took the overnight bus from Delhi to Manali, and then a taxi up to the start point of the trek on the Leh-Manali highway, a few kilometres before the Rohtang Pass. We walked uphill for about 6 hours to the first base camp at Rola Khuli at 3650m asl, where we pitched tents, made a quick dinner of instant noodles and cheese, and then settled in for the night. The next morning, we left most of our equipment behind in the tents, and headed off, through light snowfall, for the trek to the lake itself.
We got up to Bhrigu Lake by 1pm; the weather had completely cleared up, so I unpacked my rucksack. I unwound a little bit of the wire and put Matsya into the water to check that the tubes were still sealed, which they were. I then started up my laptop and plugged the cables in; the lights on the top-side box started blinking, and Chrome started up. The laptop battery reading was 92%, so everything seemed great. I hit my bookmark for the OpenROV Cockpit on Chrome, and we had data! Visual and telemetry were coming in, and everything seemed great; I was about to start up the motors to actually begin exploring the lake when my laptop died.
The battery discharged completely.
We sat around enjoying the view for some more time and then headed back to Rola Khuli, where we packed up camp and then heading back to Manali. While not being able to actually explore Bhrigu Lake was a bit disappointing, we did have a great trip, and accomplished our primary purpose, which was to make sure the OpenROV worked well at high altitudes.
The MacBook charged as usual, and is functioning normally; I'm actually typing this post on it right now. It was either the extreme cold up at Bhrigu Lake or the low pressure, or a combination of both that affected the laptop battery. The maximum operating altitude for a MacBook Pro, as per Apple, is 3000m, so for the expedition to Tso Kar, the main lesson learnt is that we're going to need a sturdier laptop. The OpenROV, though, is ready for that dive.
(With thanks to Raghav, Siddharth and Aditya for being great trek partners! We left Delhi on the 18th, were at Rola Khuli on the 19th, at Bhrigu Lake on the 20th and back in Delhi by the 22nd of October 2017.)
A brief update; we conducted a couple of test immersions in the Baga river, and then tagged along with TerraConscious on one of their eco-friendly dolphin boat rides out on the Arabian Sea, where Matsya was introduced to seawater for the first time. The water was murky, but she dived to the seabed (at a very shallow 10m of depth) and everything worked well. There were no leaks and aside from a few data-glitches on the IMU, all the components worked! I've taken a few segments from the footage recorded by Matsya's camera, and compiled them into a short (~1min) video which should be available below.
Next up: Fixing the port motor, finding a source of replacement motors in India, painting the OpenROV frame in a high-visibility colour (so she can be easily located when she surfaces) and getting things in place for future dives.
The OpenROV has had her first dive, and thus she now has a name! I'm calling her Matsya, after the piscine avatar of the male god Vishnu; it is a 'her' though, since ships are always female.
She's had a difficult few days. First, her port motor started twitching due to a still-undiagnosed fault; since she needed to be in Goa in a few days for her first test dives, the motor was removed, and will be replaced in the near future. For now, she can move vertically and um, in circles.
She then missed her maiden flight to Goa, and stayed in Delhi in the suitcase with all my clothes. At first, we thought she'd been detained by security at the airport, since she's basically a plastic box with lots of wires, electronics and batteries, and doesn't exactly look airplane-friendly. However, it turned out to be a lot less complicated; Air India simply had forgotten to put her on the flight, and she arrived safely the next day i.e. yesterday.
I'd already dipped her into a bucket full of water in Delhi, as part of the waterproofing tests, which she passed successfully. In the process, she also took a very nice photo of my wife looking down at her. In Goa, after running through the pre-dive checklist, I took Matsya to the Our Lady of Snows church in Raia, on the banks of the Zuari river, where she had her first dive in the great outdoors. Once I'd set everything up, I waded into the river with her and pushed her into the current, and then let her drift while I monitored the cockpit feed.
I'm happy to report that everything went extremely well; Matsya actually saw some fish and moved vertically and circularly without springing a leak. There was a bit of jugaad required, which I'll detail in the OpenROV forums, but there's now a functioning OpenROV 2.8 in India!
Next up: more dives in Goa, including some in the open sea, and then we'll start working towards Ladakh.
P.S.: In my eagerness to deploy, I didn't follow the tether-spooling guidelines, so my task for the afternoon, after following the post-dive checklist, was to untangle 100m of double-stranded wire. It took me slightly over 4 hours, and while I've learnt my lesson, I must also admit that puzzling it out was a lot of fun.
It's time for another, much-delayed update; in the last one, I talked about how I received and unpacked the OpenROV, and began putting it together. I used cyanoacrylate instead of acrylic cement to stick everything together, which worked well, and expected only a few more hours of work before the OpenROV was complete. What I hadn't bargained for was how much time it would take for me to identify and procure the correct type of epoxy for the various bits of electronic potting required.
Since I'm based in India, I wasn't able to get the epoxy, with mixing syringe, recommended in the OpenROV build. The epoxy I have used in the past (brandname: Araldite), primarily for woodworking purposes, is far too viscous to be pushed into the OpenROV's empty spaces, and I was bit lost as to how to proceed. I put the build on hold for a while, but continued looking for suitable epoxy resins. I contacted a few chemical suppliers in India, and while they claimed to have low-viscosity epoxies available, they were only willing to sell them in very high volumes. Finally, I found some clear-casting epoxy resin on Amazon India (name: MurtiSil - Easy Cast 33 - Transparent Epoxy Resin - 911133000750 - 750 Grams) which seemed to be what I was looking for. There wasn't much documentation available, but since the seller's description states that this epoxy has "very less viscosity like water", I decided to take a chance. I'm glad to say that this epoxy worked like a charm; it did flow like water, and I used a set of 20mm medical syringes to measure, mix and inject the epoxy into the OpenROV.
In the meantime, I also quit my day job at WWF-India to focus on using technology for wildlife (techforwildlife.com), and allocated 3 days of my first week off work towards OpenROV construction. While there were a few issues, I managed to work them out using the very helpful OpenROV forums, and In brief, I put the OpenROV together, put the batteries in and activated the device. And it worked!
At this point (30th January 2017), I have a nearly-complete OpenROV; the only task left is to ensure that the main electronics tube and the soldered connections are waterproof, and then we can begin our first test dives.
There's good news...actually, there's great news! Thanks to the OpenROV team and the Moore Foundation, I've been sent an OpenROV kit; it successfully navigated Indian customs and was delivered last month to me in New Delhi, India. If anyone else is trying to get an OpenROV kit delivered in India, feel free to get in touch if you need any advice.
The kit itself is in a lovely white box well-packed in bubble wrap. It took pride of place in my workshop/utility room, and I began the actual build yesterday. I wasn't able to find acrylic cement in Delhi, so I've been using cyanoacrylate instead. This means that the see-through acrylic of the endcaps isn't quite see-through anymore, but they seem waterproof. I've made one major mistake so far; I put the non-pass through endcap together the wrong way around, but managed to separate it using a sharp tool before the superglue bonded completely. However, in the process I managed to cut first my thumb and then my little finger (I was in a hurry to separate the layers; superglue bonds within 20 seconds) so there's now blood visible inside the endcap layers...maybe it'll help attract sharks.
Other than that, I'm really enjoying the build; once I get access to a soldering station and procure epoxy for the potting, it's only a few more hours till the OpenROV is ready for its first test!
As requested in one of the comments, I've posted a photo of the area. I took this while climbing up one of the unnamed mountains on the rim of the Tso Kar lake basin. It was lovely summer day, and I managed to get to an altitude of ~20,000ft before I turned around. I made it back well after dark, having had to scramble down some scree, but the trek was worth it. I had a magnificent view of the lake and the scenery is spectacular. That's the lake we're going to be exploring with the OpenROV.
A year later, and this project is back on the radar; I've been working on drone policy in India and I'm hoping that circumstances have changed enough that I can get the OpenROV into the country by the end of the year. We're then going to go up to Ladakh in May 2017; fingers crossed!
It's time for an update; six months down the line from the initial project post, I've met with guarded enthusiasm from everyone I've spoken to about this project. Enthusiastic, because they think it's a great idea, and guarded, because in this part of the world, red tape could be a serious issue, especially when using the words 'robot' and 'border area'. However, I've worked in Ladakh, Kashmir, before, and am familiar with the processes involved in getting permits for scientific research. In addition, the fact that I'm an Indian citizen will definitely help!
At this point of time, I'm working on getting other local stakeholders involved. I'm focusing on getting individuals and institutions with technical and/or regional expertise on board, and am also fleshing out the logistical details of the expedition.
Regarding the OpenROV itself, it was very kindly funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, but due to issues with FedEx and Indian Customs, the delivery was cancelled. However, I've been working out those issues, and hopefully, if and when the OpenROV is dispatched again it'll reach successfully.