This year, scientists, researchers and technologists will come together through the Fab Ocean initiative to develop low cost, open source underwater drones and artificial intelligence. Making deep sea exploration easier and more affordable, they will facilitate more environmentally beneficial projects, like the monitoring of coral reefs to inform protection strategies.

The Internet may seem mysterious, but compared with the unexplored depths of the world’s oceans, it’s a tiny ecosystem. Over 90% of the ocean floor has never been seen, even though the entire planet depends on ocean sustainability.

David Li of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab is one of the founders of Fab Ocean. From the world’s electronic hardware capital in China, he connects small scale innovators and technology entrepreneurs with technology manufacturers that can help them carry out their visions.

David Li
David Li. Photo by Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Q: Why do you need to make underwater drones? Can’t you just buy them?

A: Most underwater robots are for industrial use and cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are only a few consumer level ones available and they cost more than $2,000.

Water covers 70% of the earth, but technologies to survey the ocean floor in detail are inefficient and costly. We have more knowledge of the surface of Mars!

So, no, we can’t just buy them – yet. They are expensive and not widely available. More importantly, we believe the process of building these robots for the sea will help generate more curiosity about the oceans of our planet and help surface new opportunities.

Q: What excites you the most about Fab Ocean?

A: The idea for Fab Ocean emerged in early 2017 from a conversation with Chris Wilkinson, a Fab Foundation board director and undersea robotics engineer. We met through the Fab Lab Network, an open manufacturing community of more than 1,200 labs worldwide.

Chris co-founded the project Team Tao in 2016. It’s a bid to win a $7 million USD Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE by drastically reducing the cost of ocean floor exploration. I was an advisor on that project, and in the promotion process we realized how hard it is to get people excited about the ocean.

With Fab Ocean we want to promote a sustainable ocean economy. Media headlines typically focus on how robots and artificial intelligence are coming for our jobs. That’s depressing. In the ocean, they enable us to explore the vast unknown, beyond any human physical limitations.

Q: What is it about Shenzhen and the manufacturing ecosystem there you wish more people were aware of?

A: The Shenzhen ecosystem is centered on sharing knowledge about product design openly in large, collaborative communities of entrepreneurs, designers, engineers and manufacturers.

What matters the most to me is that the ecosystem in Shenzhen widens the pool of people who can leverage technology for social impact. Making hardware becomes an art form of crafting objects. It shifts the question from: ‘How do I make this?’ to ‘Why do I make this?’

Q: What does “democratization of technology” mean to you?

A: It’s about being able to turn an idea into reality, no matter who you are.

“Moore’s Law” describes the rate at which technology grows its performance capability every 18 months. I think about how much the prices go down over the same time period, and how it enables exponential growth in the numbers of people who can participate.

We should shift our mindset about technology: Technologies don’t drive us; we use technologies to solve problems and make an impact.

And that’s why we want to do Fab Ocean. We want to advance mass participation in the exploration of the ocean by using the power of Shenzhen to democratize technologies. In this way, we can offer a counterbalance to the exploitation of the ocean by the few.

Further reading:

Fab Ocean
Team Tao
Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab