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Building ROVs

ROV stands for “remotely operated vehicle.” These unmanned machines are commonly used to investigate locations or operate under conditions which would pose a substantial risk to the health or safety of a human being. Oil companies, for example, may use ROVs to scan the deep ocean bottom in order to find oil or natural gas deposits. The military may use ROVs to retrieve dangerous objects, such as torpedoes or bombs; or to assist in underwater rescue operations. Scientists or government agencies may use these devices to monitor underwater volcanic vents, explore ancient shipwrecks or investigate marine trenches.

VIdeo: ROVs At Work In The Deep Sea

Elements of an ROV

ROVs may have slightly different gear on them depending on what they were designed to do, but the general elements of these machines remain the same.

Flotation pack: Specially designed synthetic materials are used to help the ROV remain buoyant. This pack is typically on the top of the ROV to help hold it upright in the water.

Chassis: The structural frame of the ROV is built of aluminum or another lightweight material. The chassis may include skids on the bottom of the ROV so it can rest on underwater structures.

Thrusters: A series of thrusters may be positioned in different areas around the ROV’s body. Similar to a vehicle operating in a vacuum, ROVs must be maneuverable in a three dimensional space. This means that a skilled operator, using the onboard thrusters, can manipulate the ROV in any direction while preventing it from rolling in the water.

Electrical components: Motors, batteries and other electrical systems are housed in special compartments to keep them from corroding in sea water or malfunctioning under the pressures encountered at extreme depths. Some ROVs use hydraulic pumps for propulsion or to operate some of the onboard devices such as electrical systems.

Cable or tether: This is the lifeline which connects the ROV to its human operator who is usually stationed aboard a ship. A tether is designed to be neutrally buoyant, meaning its average density is equal to the water around it so currents won’t drag the ROV. Armored cables are also used to connect the ROV to the operator, and usually contain conductors and fiber optics for electrical power and data transmission. A tether management system (TMS) can be part of the ROVs design or may be onboard the ship to help regulate the tether’s length.

Science tools: Depending on the ROV’s function, onboard science tools and instruments can change from machine to machine. All ROVs will have lights and cameras. Others may include sonar, manipulator arms, cutting tools, water sampling and collection devices, thermometers and magnetometers.

So You Wanna Build An ROV?

If you’re interested in helping design ROVs, there are some excellent educational resources for you. Click on the links below to learn more. If you know of a program in the Pacific Northwest which isn’t listed here, suggest it to us through email or by posting it to The Stream.

Opportunities For High School Students:

Marine Advanced Technology Education. The mission of the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center is to provide the marine technical workforce with appropriately educated workers and to use marine technology to create interest in and improve STEM education.

Oregon State University, 4H Extension Program. The Wasco County 4H Rovology is for youth in grades 4-12. The learning focus is on marine biology, technology, and related careers. Among their other projects, youths build ROVs.

Homebuilt ROVs. Interested in designing and constructing an ROV at home? This private website will offer some valuable tips for the amateur ROV operator.

Opportunities For Higher Education:

Linn-Benton Community College ROV Team. Located in Albany, Oregon, LBCC’s ROV Team helps interested students design, build and test ROVs in competition. Check out their Facebook page for additional information.

Oregon State University, Underwater Robotics Club. OSU’s Robotics Club dedicated to designing and engineering underwater ROVs for competition at the MATE International ROV competition.

University of Washington, Applied Physics Laboratory. The underwater robotics program at the University of Washington provides a dynamic learning environment for oceanography and engineering students to design, build, and operate an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from scratch.


My ROV's Better Than Your ROV, Part 1 of 2

What is an remotely operated underwater vehicle (or ROV) and how do these sophisticated robots help scientist discover new things about the world ocean? This short video will help explain how technology is letting us reach places we could never go in person.

My ROV's Better Than Your ROV, Part 2 of 2

The Annihilators, an ROV building club from Wasco County, goes up against some stiff competition at a statewide contest to see whose underwater robot rules supreme. How will their invention, which they call "The Dumptruck," fair in the water?