The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
ROV systems can help to inspire the marine scientists of the future, but which ones are best for educational use? Marc Deglinnocenti returns with his annual countdown of top picks
Remotely operated vehicles are excellent tools for learning about our underwater environment. Up to 80% of Earth’s life is in the oceans with up to 91% of that life yet to be classified. That’s not hard to believe when you understand that 71% of the planet is covered in water. Educators and scientists alike use ROVs to explore and learn about marine biology, marine geology and marine archaeology with great success. There are now hundreds of ROVs on the market to choose from. So, which ones are the best to learn with, and why?
This top ten educational ROV countdown can in no way name all of the good ones, but it may help you on your way to understanding some of the main characteristics to consider when shopping for one. A combination of ease of use, options available, serviceable depth rating, reliability and cost was used to formulate the following list.
10 Starting off the list will be an extremely inexpensive ROV that has some abilities to expand with Wi-Fi add-on options to its underside. The mounting screw holes are already there too. This ROV is recommended for introductory marine biology classes for both younger students and some adults. The USA-based OpenROV company developed Trident and then merged with Spoondrift, USA, to form Sofar Ocean Technologies. There’s a Trident bundle offer available on Amazon right now for US$2630 (£2000). The bundle includes the 100-metre depth rated Trident ROV, 100 metres of tether on a reel, a hard carrying case, and an Android controller tablet.
As well as being the cheapest ROV on this list, it is also the fastest at two metres per second. It can live stream over the internet and right into your classroom. It has a three-hour dive time which is more than enough for an end of course lesson. The charger and Wi-Fi module are also included in the bundle. You can borrow a basic marine biology curriculum or make up your own and start teaching straight away. At that price, along with some basic ROV functions, and without having to transport all of your students to the water, there’s really no excuse for not having a Trident and a very exciting marine biology class. Sofar has even integrated the Trident into its new unmanned autonomous vehicle, the Sofar Strider US$4500 (£3430). The Strider stays on the surface powered by solar cells for extended ROV dive times.
9 For schools with limited budgets but with unlimited time on their hands, Blue Robotics, USA, sells an ROV kit called the BlueROV2 Heavy. This ROV has open source programming with a depth rating of 100 metres with an option to increase it to 400 or 500 metres. The company’s website has an extensive and easy to use online store for all sorts of modifications for this eight-thruster ROV. Some standard and optional equipment includes a 1080p digital video camera, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, internal barometer, external depth sensor, external temperature sensor, sonar, manipulator arm, electrical current and voltage sensing, leak detection, GPS tracking, and a three-hour battery endurance. Many more options are always under development at the firm’s Southern California factory.
Your students will learn about electro mechanics while assembling the ROV and then enjoy learning about the marine environment with a completed and capable unit. They will also be very adept at repairing the ROV should that become necessary.
The base unit price is US$3383 (£2577) and an additional US$599 (£456) for the “Heavy” eight-thruster configuration. Don’t let the “Heavy” title fool you though, it’s quite portable by one person. This ROV is recommended for intermediate or higher classes.
8 JW Fishers, USA, makes a great line of inexpensive ROVs as well as a long line of optional marine equipment and ROV add-ons. This means that most educational institutions can afford to buy a new one for US$29,995 (£22,845) right now. The company’s Sea Lion-2 has a 300-metre depth rating. Its torpedo-like shape gives it an edge while operating in higher current zones. Operating it is easy too with its wired or wireless game controller.
Options include a 450-metre tether, tether management system, onscreen data displays, GPS, metal detector, manipulator arm, external DVR recorder, internal DVR recorder, sonar and up to four cameras. Teachers will love the video jack for an additional monitor so that students aren’t always crowding around the control console. This ROV is good for marine biology studies, but has a quite excellent rating for marine archaeology.
7 The Canadian company Deep Trekker’s model DTX2 Manipulator is a rugged aluminum cased ROV with a 305-metre depth rating. It is unique in its ability to have vectored thrust for excellent manoeuvrability in confined spaces yet still be classified as a single person portable ROV.
Priced at US$28,498 (£21,706) it comes with a two-function manipulator arm, 330-degree view HD colour camera for low light use, a heavy duty tether reel with 150 metres of tether included, an integrated “Superbright” screen controller for sunny daylight use, onscreen auto depth and auto heading readouts, an internal high-powered LED light with four additional fixed auxiliary LED lights, and two carrying cases. It operates on 16 volts DC power for three to six hours before needing recharging for 1.5 hours. Popular options are more cameras and a sonar. This is another great bundle bargain for basic and intermediate students.
6 VideoRay is a Pottstown, Pennsylvania, USA, company founded in 1999. It has been growing ever since, not only in an increasing customer base, but also in the size and capabilities of its ROV product line. VideoRay’s Mission Specialist Pro 5 is a lightweight ROV that is designed to be modular with interchangeable components. VideoRay is popular with law enforcement agencies, fish and game departments, and educational institutes with limited budgets.
With a base price of US$60,000 (£45,700), it rates high on almost everyone’s list. That price is remarkable for what you get too. The Mission Specialist Pro 5 comes standard with a 100-metre tether but the ROV has a maximum depth rating of 305 metres. The submersible itself only weighs 10 kilograms, so both adults and youth alike can easily handle it. The Mission Specialist Pro 5 has shore-side power for continuous dives. With a maximum speed of 4.4 knots under the water, it’s one of the fastest ROVs for operations in higher current zones. Options include a rotating manipulator arm with five jaw choices, sonar and a GPS positioning system.
5 Shark Marine Technologies, another Canadian company, offers up its Barracuda ROV. It is very portable, weighing in at only 39 kilograms. It has a 300-metre depth rating with an unlimited dive time powered by 220-240 volts AC. It also comes with a host of optional equipment like a Teledyne Marine, USA, multibeam sonar, single or dual function manipulator arms, a laser scaling system for precise underwater measurements, radiation detector, metal thickness gauge, three types of controllers, and Shark Marine’s Total Navigation System that can even operate the ROV semi-autonomously. Even more options are available, such as a tether management system with a recovery hook mounted onto the ROV itself. A great option includes a transformer that will let the ROV operate off of 110 volt AC power too.
4 Next on the list is the Mojave observation-class ROV from Forum Energy Technologies’ operation in Aberdeenshire, UK. This is a typical 300-metre depth rated ROV with a large frame made for add-ons. It has four vectored thrusters and one vertical thruster for great manoeuvrability.
Options include sonar, an electric or a powerful hydraulic manipulator arm, more cameras, depth gauge, instrument skid, and a recovery beacon and flasher. One of the options includes a Cathode Potential (CP) probe that measures the electrochemical capacity of a metal object. This helps the user to define areas of excessive electrical corrosion.
The Mojave isn’t bad with its standard equipment either. The ROV comes with a standard tilt feature for the camera, LED lighting, depth transducer and auto positioning with some great navigation features built right in. This ROV can easily provide for all basic, intermediate and advanced classes.
3 With its factory in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, USA-based company Deep Ocean Engineering (DOE) has been building ROVs since 1984. It builds both subsurface ROVs and UAVs for surface use. With all this experience under its belt, the firm has produced the Phantom T5 Defender ROV that just happens to be a practically perfect marine research and teaching tool.
It is the only ROV on this list that has a 300-metre depth rating that comes with 300 metres of tether as standard. The ROV also comes with a 500-metre optional depth rating. That same 300-metre copper core tether has a 5000-pound (2268-kilogram) breaking strength. A fibre optic tether is offered as an upgrade. The ROV is powered from the surface and takes 90-250 volts AC for an unlimited dive time and multi-country power friendly access. Accurate onscreen heading, depth and speed readouts are standard.
The Sony HD 1920 x 1080 camera can zoom in 30x with image stabilisation. This standard camera also has a white balance with many other advanced image adjustments. That front mounted tilt camera is paired up with 6000-lumen LED lights standard. Optional 18000-lumen lights are available. Those optical combinations provide for excellent observations at considerable depths.
Other options include imaging sonar, manipulator arm, GPS navigation software and a disruptor. The disruptor is an electrically-initiated, patent-pending device used to break up underwater obstructions.
The Phantom T5 Defender has the option to come with three, four or five thrusters. The magnetically coupled thrusters help eliminate leaks in high-pressure environments, and four of the five standard thrusters are vectored for maximum manoeuvrability. The polypropylene frame is corrosion resistant.
The Phantom T5 Defender is DOE’s next generation ROV and costs around US$99,999 (£76,164) for the 300-metre base unit.
2 Heading into the final two ROVs on the list, we come to USA-based Teledyne Marine’s model vLBV300 vehicle. The vLBV300 has a 300-metre depth rating and comes with a 250-metre tether as standard. With four vectored thrusters and two vertical ones, this ROV is remarkably manoeuvrable.
The author operated this ROV in real world conditions in Mission Bay, California, and can attest to its smooth and easy controls. Ease of control was just one factor in making the list. Price was another factor. You can pick up a new one for less than US$60,000 (£45,700), and you won’t be sorry that you did.
The ROV comes from a company that is a leader in marine technology. Its products are innovative, excellent and intuitive, and can be found on many other brands of ROVs and UAVs. This means that you will always have a wide range of options to add on to the vLBV300. There are too many options available to list here (more than 20). One such option that cries out to be mentioned is Teledyne Marine’s excellent, well thought out software programme for multiple data readouts on a single screen.
1 Congratulations must go to Saab Seaeye, UK, for heading our list with the excellent Seaeye Falcon DR vehicle. The company ensures that all of its ROVs stay highly competitive, and the Falcon DR is an ROV that represents this philosophy by having a fibre optic tether as just one example.
It’s priced at the 300-metre ROV level, however this ROV has a 1000-metre depth rating. Its power supply plugs into a simple single phase 110- or 230-volt AC wall socket. That gives it an unlimited dive time that’s easy to operate with its touchscreen and joystick controllers. The depth and heading sensors (navigation pod), two LED lights and a high-resolution colour camera are standard equipment. With a customisable data screen and a dizzying array of options, this ROV can provide hours of education and data collection at remarkable depths.
A 360-degree scanning sonar is one such option that sits on top of the ROV. Another option is a multibeam forward scanning sonar. Various types of manipulator arms are also available such as a simple three-prong gripstick, a mini cutter arm, a cleaning brush arm or a sophisticated manipulator arm skid. A metal thickness gauge, Doppler velocity log for auto station keeping, a laser scale, a CP probe to measure electrical currents, an altimeter to measure the distance above the seafloor, and a GPS tracking system are some more options. Many more options are available.
The ROV is built in the United Kingdom, and maintains a high resale value, but you can get a basic new one for about US$150,000 (£114,248). Tether lengths and controllers are extra.
I operated the Falcon DR at Global Diving & Salvage, Inc. in Seattle, Washington, USA, to see for myself how this ROV handles. The extra large diameter thrusters supplied a remarkable amount of power for its size. The controller functions are adjustable, so you can fight heavy currents with robust control settings and then switch to more sensitive controls for delicate work all within the same dive.
The ROV tested also had semi-autonomous capabilities. This ROV also stood up to some very heavy-duty use by Global Diving & Salvage, and it should be tough enough for your educational uses too.
Educational institutions should invest in one of these ROVs. The brands listed here also offer even more sophisticated models if your budget allows. With most of Earth’s surface covered in water, it’s important to teach our students about that portion of our planet. Using an educational ROV is a great place to start.