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Pro Tip: Give Your Ocean Robot a Bath

Some tips on preventing an invasive species from hitching a ride on your underwater ROV.

by Matthew Braga
Sep 29 2015, 11:00am

Image: OpenROV

Drone owners have it easy. They don't have to wash their UAVs before sending them up into the sky. If you're an owner of an underwater robot, on the other hand, you owe it to the planet to give that ROV of yours a thorough scrub.

A paper published Monday in the open access journal Tropical Conservation Science warns that, while the proliferation of tiny, consumer-friendly remotely operated underwater vehicles is great for citizen science, it may not be so great for the ocean if owners don't take proper care to screen for potentially harmful organisms that might be hitching a ride.

"With tens of thousands of submersible vehicles operating around the world for research, industry, exploration, and recreation, there is a tremendous potential for the introduction of invasive species via these hightech vectors," the paper reads—and microROVs have the potential to make things worse.

MicroROVs are what the paper uses to refer to a new breed of remotely controlled underwater robots, such as those designed by OpenROV (two of the paper's co-authors work for OpenROV). The idea is that, much as foreign organisms have been known to hitch rides inside the ballast tanks of ships—zebra mussels and asian carp, for example, have both wreaked havoc on local wildlife since their introduction into North America, where they don't traditionally belong—similar scenarios could occur on a smaller scale once microROVs make it into more hands.

This isn't merely a hypothetical. Though no cases of invasive species spreading via tiny, inexpensive ROVs have yet been reported, the study notes, there have certainly been more than a few cases of other vehicles spreading unintended ocean life to ecosystems where they don't belong.

For example, the paper cites a 2012 case in which "limpets from the East Pacific Rise were transported 635 kilometers south via the DSV Alvin," and another case in which "an unidentified fungal infection was hypothesized to be the result of transmission via research submersibles."

The paper provides some guidelines on minimizing the spread of invasive species for anyone wishing to operate a microROV beyond in environments beyond a backyard pool. Those guidelines include educational awareness (knowing that invasive or harmful organisms can be transmitted by even tiny ROVs in the first place); visual inspection prior to and following deployment; a freshwater soak prior to diving, and a freshwater rinse following; a bleach soak before long term storage; and, ideally, minimizing the transport of an ROV between ecosystems.

So do your part, and don't forget to give your underwater robot a good, thorough bath—before and after you go for a dive. You never know what might be hitching a ride.

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