A report on OpenROV conducted in the context of the Open Design & Manufacturing project.

“OpenROV started in 2001 as a project to make underwater exploration tools accessible to anyone, launched by Eric Stackpole and David Lang. The company shares much of its designs and cultivates a community of hobbyists that help test, modify and refine its products. Its main product so far has been a low cost kit that people order and assemble themselves, for an underwater drone that can explore to a depth of 100 meters. The company is now in the finishing stages of launching a pre-assembled and manufactured product called Trident.

Out of graduate school, Eric worked at NASA as an engineer, but was an active hobbyist. In part inspired by the maker movement, he felt a sense of possibility that he could create technology that could solve problems. After hearing a story about sunken treasure that was hidden in a cave area (the Hall City Cave in Hayfork, California), he discovered a reason and purpose to build such an underwater drone. This project helped him to find his cofounder David Lang, and also to get media attention. The co-founder David Lang was very astute about the need to build a community around the project, and a community building website. Once a prototype was built they attempted to retrieve the treasure they had heard of, however the project was beset by technical problems and no treasure was ultimately found. Yet in the process they had begun to build a community around the idea of DIY underwater exploration.

OpenROV evolved into an approach for prototyping underwater drones. OpenRov’s underwater drones have iterated through a number of phases. Throughout its development it has been involved in a number of maker faire’s and won a number of competitions. In 2012 OpenROV launched a kickstarter campaign raising over 100,000 dollars for a kit product. In 2015 OpenROV launched a new campaign that raised over $800,000 for its Trident drone. The company’s values center around the exploration of the unknown, creating technology which is revolutionary and having a big and positive impact on the world.

Business model and open source elements

OpenROV’s core business model is in selling kits and products that are highly engineered and relatively low cost compared to other products, based on many years of research and development. To do this the company eclectically uses a mix of open source hardware and conventional parts. The company maintains the majority of its designs as open source. However not all of its products are open-source, for reasons that will be explained.

As a general rule OpenROV shares what it can, much of the process in creating the drones and the parts / technology that make up. However it requires a huge amount of energy to document the engineering and development process. Documenting everything would not be possible, so it is important to make strategic decisions about where OpenROV decides to put its documentation energy. The filter that is used to make decisions about whether something will be open source or not is whether it will be beneficial to the community and to the company at the same time. The company cares more about the quality and performance of the product than in making it open source for open source’s sake.

An example of this is the use of the Qualcomm chip set. OpenROV decided to use this because it was the best and most appropriate part. The company has signed a nondisclosure agreement with Qualcomm, and as Eric explains “if we only allowed ourselves to use parts that are open source our hands would be tied.” In Eric’s opinion there is a subtle difference between community-based hardware and open source hardware. Non-open source hardware can still be low cost and have a large community of users and developers around it. For example their choice to use the BeagleBone Linux computer was not based on it being open source, but rather because it was low cost and because enough other people were developing with it that they could learn from. It is more important to have a healthy developer community where people can share and learn and build, which in Eric’s view is itself its own kind of open-source, whether based on proprietary hardware or not.

There is also the need to be careful about open sourcing elements of OpenROV that they have put huge investment in. If everything were open source, large-scale competitors / manufacturers, from China or elsewhere, could be easily able to replicate what they did, making OpenROV uncompetitive. OpenROV has put in well over $1 million into R&D costs and they need to make sure they get value back. For other elements of the design, where OpenROV does not feel over exposed, they do open source design elements and hope that people can tinker and build off the ideas.

Open-source for software has existed for a while, however for hardware it is still a new emerging space, and the need to translate research and development costs into future profits is still an issue in question that OpenROV grapples with. For this reason OpenROV straddles a fuzzy and shifting line between open source and proprietary elements. They see open source as a means to an end, and are more interested in democratizing DIY underwater exploration and building a bigger community and ecosystem of innovators.

Community dimensions of OpenROV

The more substantive dimension of open source for OpenROV is in the community dimensions. Eric believes that “everyone is smarter than anyone”, by which he means that more people working on the problem draws on more intelligence than simply a limited group. The community dimension of open-source allows for greater social momentum built around a project, something OpenROV has repeatedly experienced. Eric expressed that it is somewhat of a cliché that a community will produce lots of intellectual property to make something better. He feels that the “free IP” concept of open source is a myth. For him the bigger element that arises from openness is sharing something that he believes in with the community. This allows him to see what people value, pick up, and where the interest is. And he gets motivation and encouragement from the community as well. Communities are all about helping do the thing together that they mutually care about.

For OpenROV openness is closer to the idea of “user led innovation”, being able to see how a community engages with product. They have reaped the most benefits from understanding what the community’s interests are, what things they adopt, they try and build themselves. Cultivating a community is also a source of recruitment – finding people from the community and hiring them. For them those are bigger returns than any IP they have drawn from the community.

Building a global ecosystem?

One thing that they have noticed is that as they have open sourced the drone technology, other companies around the world have copied what they have done. Most of these competitors do not necessarily share back to the world their own unique additions. On the one hand the logic of this competition could be seen to be good. Competition can energize development of a market with a widening variety of niche areas. Like the iphone app community or Elon Musk’s decision to make Tesla designs open, the intent behind open sourcing is to create the conditions for social infrastructure to develop that supports all of the competitor’s in a system.

They also hope that ecosystem sharing emerges in this new niche area. Yet so far there have not been any companies that have done this. In OpenROV’s own community there are some examples where people are creating and sharing their own new designs, however is not the same as multiple enterprises driving the development of an industry sector globally.

Connections with research is one of those bright spots, there have been over 100 articles and essays written about OpenROV, including a number of theses. There are many relationships to universities, teams of researchers who have bought the products, corresponded with OpenROV, used of technology and adapted it. In many cases OpenROV have provided support on a pro bono basis. Therefore, in the area of research and development, there has been a space of open knowledge production which has emerged in the space of submersible robotics, which OpenROV has helped to spark.

Skills, competencies and decision making

Designing underwater drones requires a high degree of technical capability. Even those buying the kits need to have technical capabilities and feel comfortable with technology. Many of the users of the technology are small business owners involved in some form of underwater exploration.

The team itself has between 12 and 15 people working full time, and about half a dozen interns. The team itself is highly technical in orientation, what they do is hard-core engineering. The team does all of its own analysis and design work. Eric feels that this is the right way to spend resources in beginning – to make sure the product is excellent. He feels it is the hard-core engineering and research and development that has driven its success.

There is no formal problem-solving process or approach for the company. There is a lot of transparency between what everyone does and people can easily talk to each other. The environment is more like a group of friends rather than a boss with workers. There are not a lot of meetings in the company. If people are involved in the problem-solving process they will work with the people directly involved in this problem. Collaboration spills out organically from the need to solve technical challenges.

OpenROV also does not formally hire people. It attracts people who are passionate are then invites them to be part of the team. Team members feel a strong sense of alignment. People feel a sense of care for the projects that they are involved in and want to steer them in the right direction. It is not just a job where people feel they need to show up. If people don’t like the way things are going it bothers them and they’ll most likely say something. Ultimately the people who work as part of the team feel a sense of ownership for what we are doing.

Strengths or weakness of the open design approach

When assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the open design approach, a contrast is drawn between openness at an organizational level and openness at a social level. At an organizational level openness means that the work environment is such that people can and will debate various solutions and decisions. Not all will agree. It is harder to get decisions made, but the theory is that better decisions are ultimately made, and that those involved feel more alignment and ownership because they came to the decision themselves.

The same logic can be applied to openness at the social level. When OpenROV is open and describes the various steps that it takes in technology development, there are people who question what it is doing and point out other options. This ultimately takes more time and can create frustration, than if they just made decisions without openness to the user community. Being open to a community in the development process provides more options, more complexity, more decisions and raises the amount of work that needs to be done. However, it also means OpenROV can learn from the community and the community can help refine and support OpenROV. OpenROV does updates every month, and when there is a delay, OpenROV provides an explanation (e.g. if they decided to change a part etc.). OpenROV opens itself up to being second guessed, and providing answers in an open way takes energy. But it also means that there is the possibility of learning from a bigger system.

The weaknesses of working within the open source / open design approach is the increased time to explain internal decisions and answer questions, as well as competition that arises from openness. The other challenge are the expectations that people project onto OpenROV, the idealism associated with open source. The community may expect OpenROV to hold themselves to a higher bar than what is possible with respect to open source, but they may misunderstand the nature of the challenges OpenROV faces. It is challenging to manage these expectations, as a company that is pragmatically open source. For them, patent and open source are not mutually exclusive – and there may be blind spots in the discourse on open source that overlooks this.

Thoughts on the future

Into the future OpenROV will continue to be improvisational with open source, doing it where it can. It will continue to care about its community and building a community globally. What is most important for it is to nurture a community of makers, tinkerers, researchers and innovators, rather than simply open all innovation to manufacturers who will steal and compete on price basis. How OpenROV nurtures a community of such innovators through open source rather than opening up to non-innovating manufacturers with economies of scale is one of the biggest challenges to address.

This report was conducted in the context of the Open Design & Manufacturing project, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.

Photo by 0xF2

Photo by ellen forsyth

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