Eric Stackpole Cofounder OpenROV


Osborn: So  when the Kickstarter  happened, there was already  a  lot of interest in OpenROV. What made you guys decide to do this as open source?

Stackpole: There are several aspects that factored into it, and I can address that on different levels. One of the levels is ideological, which is, what good are you going to produce for the world? And by making something open source, everyone  has access to it. I have a personal mantra and OpenROV  is a tool to help fulfill that mantra, which is that I believe telerobotics  holds huge poten- tial as a tool for exploration. I feel like it’s my duty to help the world realize that potential. And that specific thing has been a very important driving force. Even before OpenROV, I was building telerobots  with the same intention: to popularize telerobotics for exploration.  So by making it open source, I think I am able to affect more people. Look at how Arduino works. There were plenty of microcontrollers before it, but because everybody  has access to Arduino, suddenly they can create  a much bigger thing. The second perspective  or way to tell that story, the open-source story, is from an engineering standpoint. Someone once said, “Everyone is smarter than anyone.” And I appreciated  you saying that you’ve been interviewing smart people and including me in that category. But really, I’m not. I’m passionate. That’s I think  my biggest asset. I really like what I’m doing. But if I want to make a robot that’s going to be able to do really capable things, I need experts and I need their advice. And the best way to do that is to crowd-source the data.

Right now, if I’m struggling with some sort of an engineering decision and I’m losing sleep over it, using my phone I can go onto the OpenROV forums and describe the problem I’m having, and as I doze off to sleep, the problem’s going around Europe. People in Europe are looking on the forums. And the people who are the highest paid in their fields got that way because they’re passionate about what they’re doing. They’re the type of people who for fun would love to log on and solve these problems.  So by the time I wake up, there may be two or three solutions to the very technically challenging problem  I had. And as I’m having breakfast and lunch, it’s going across the United  States, and I might get another three or four ideas. Within twenty-four  hours, I can have a handful of very valid, very good ways of solving a problem  that if it were just me doing or if it were just a small team that I had hired, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. You know, it’s a lot of different perspectives from different people who have different  histories  and educations. So that’s an engineering reason for doing it.

Then the third and last one is the business reason, which is, okay, what does it really mean to patent something? To make something closed source? It doesn’t mean that someone can’t use your idea. It means if someone  else uses your idea, you can sue them. Well, first of all, there’s  not too much that’s really patentable about OpenROV. For the most part, it’s cleverly misusing already off-the-shelf parts. The second thing is that patenting stuff is really expensive. Generally, it costs on the order of $10,000 to patent one thing. I didn’t have that money at the time. I still don’t really have that money. And even if I did—this  is the third part—would I actually want to sue someone  who’s using the idea I had? I mean, what we found out so far, and this has been  a great thing, is that honestly, I think we’re moving too fast to patent. The ideas we’re creating are getting us to the next level, and then we move on to the next thing before that even has a chance to mature. The technology that we have right now, any of it that might plausibly be patentable, I imagine will be surpassed by the ideas that we have in another few months.

Osborn: Especially when it takes three-plus  years to get a patent issued.

Stackpole:  Exactly! I mean, two years from now, the ROV won’t even look remotely like what it looks like now. And I don’t think we’re slowing down. In fact, I think we’re speeding up at the rate that we’re innovating.