ROVs: The Swiss Army Knife Of The Ocean

ROVs: The Swiss Army Knife Of The Ocean

Grade Level



1- 2 hrs


Engineering and Tech

Activity Type:

, ,

What is it like to operate an ROV?

The deep ocean is incredibly important, but unfortunately, much of it is uncharted territory—we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our ocean floor. There are a lot of weird things in our oceans. Slow moving organisms called vampire squid, that don’t do anything close to sucking blood as they drift through the water filter feeding on tiny organisms that float by. Vents on the seafloor spew noxious chemicals at temperatures higher than 700 degrees Fahrenheit in some of the deepest and coldest parts of the ocean. Water can get so dense and so salty that it forms brine pools on the ocean floor that are deadly to many creatures. Crustaceans, that look like the crab equivalent of the Abominable Snowman, use their hairy arms to farm bacteria. These environments are not barren wastelands, they’re populated by organisms that are just as extreme as they are.

Creatures swimming out of the brine pool
Creatures swimming out of the brine pool. Credit: BBC America via GIPHY
GIF of a vampire squid floating in the ocean with its tentacles spread outwards
A vampire squid serenely swims in the water. Credit: Science Friday


The creatures and environments of the deep sea might sound weird to you because they’re often so unusual compared to more commonly known organisms. The real problem is that although these creatures and locations have been around for millions of years, our technical limitations of operating in such extreme conditions have prevented scientists from discovering them until recently.

The reason? Plain and simple: The deep blue ocean is dangerous and hard to get to for humans. If a human dove to depths of at least 2,000 meters, where thermal vents are found, he or she would experience pressure that is equivalent to 200 times the pressure at sea level on every inch of their body. A human expedition to the ocean floor can cost an extraordinary amount of money (tens of thousands of dollars a day). Any organization going on an expedition will be paying for the crew, vehicles, equipment, fuel, food, the crew’s salaries, and safeguards to protect those deep sea explorers.

an rov on a crane with water samples, with a backdrop of sheets of ice over the ocean
An ROV is brought back on board after a dive deep into the Canada Basin. Alaska, Beaufort Sea, North of Point Barrow. Credit: NOAA/flickr/CC BY 2.0

In a world increasingly dominated by machines, we can just send a robot down, right? True! But while the risk to human life is greatly reduced, the cost of a highly specialized remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can survive pressure at great depths is no small drop in the bucket either—especially after you add the staff to pilot and maintain the craft.

While the risk and cost of exploring the ocean can be great, that doesn’t stop deep sea explorers. Education organizations such as the Ocean Exploration Trust, government scientific agencies such as the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation, and private companies continue to venture down to the ocean floor. The ocean covers 70 percent of our planet, but only 5 percent of the ocean floor is currently mapped. That leaves an incredible 66 percent of our planet unmapped or unexplored. The United States Exclusive Economic Zone alone extends 200 nautical miles from all of our coasts, which translates to half of our country that currently sits unexplored. This means that there is a tremendous amount of natural resources that goes undiscovered. Issues then rise with properly protecting or utilizing natural resources in the deep sea—from petroleum to fish populations. Given the scientific, economic, and symbolic importance of ocean exploration, there is a real need to investigate and design solutions for the difficulties humans face exploring these unique environments.

Map of the Earth with dark blue shared around all territories designating them as territorial waters
Areas in dark blue are designated as territorial waters. This creates a vast amount of potentially unexplored territory across the planet. Credit: B1mbo via Wikimedia Commons

Part 1: Mission Possible

1. Rocks of various sizes (round river rocks, rocks with irregular sides or edges, pebbles, etc.)

2. Balls of various sizes and masses (tennis, golf, pool, baseball, etc.)

3. Various size nuts, nails, bolts, screws

4. Craft and office supplies:

  • Popsicle sticks
  • Rubber bands (can use only one size or assorted sizes)
  • Tape (any type is fine)
  • Straws
  • Plastic spoons
  • Plastic forks
  • String
  • Paperclips
  • Scissors
  • Cardboard

5. Student Handout

Remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, are robots specially created for ocean exploration that are tethered with steel and fiber optic cables to a control vehicle on the ocean’s surface. Each control vehicle, often a ship, has a dedicated area for piloting the ROV, monitoring its functionality, controlling its sensors and other tools on board, and keeping track of its location relative to the ship.

In this simulation, a pair of students will put themselves in the shoes of the ROV and ROV pilot aboard a research vessel. This means that students can’t physically bring their samples from the bottom of the ocean back to the surface. Instead, the pilot will have to use the ROV to do it for them. The pair of students will need to develop specialized tools that the ROV will use to collect and return the material to the surface.

ROV arm picking up a sample
ROV arms are highly specialized devices. Credit: Deepwater Canyons 2013 -Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS via NOAA Photo Library

Create some type of tool that acquires as many different materials as possible. Keep in mind that it can be very difficult to switch tools in the middle of an ROV dive without additional support equipment, or coming back up to the surface. To avoid the inconvenience of bringing the ROV back to the surface, your tool should be designed to collect a large diversity of material types.

Steps To Create Your Apparatus:

  1. Sketch the design for the apparatus and specifically include what materials will be needed, how many of each, how much of each, etc.
  2. Outline any modifications or alterations to be made to any of the materials used while building the apparatus.
  3. Include specifications for how the apparatus will operate in order to acquire different materials from the simulated ocean floor.
  4. Assemble your tool. Document the final version of your tool by taking a picture or creating a sketch of the finished product if there were any alterations from the original plan.
Related Segment

How Seafaring Scientists Are Mapping The Deep

Part 2: So You Can Think You Can Dive

1. Blindfold

2. Smartphones equipped with FaceTime or other comparable video chat application

3. Headband. Your best option for this is either a stiff or small stretch headband that is tight enough and can also hold the weight of the smartphone without being pulled down

4. Note cards (3×5 or 5×7) depending on the size of the smartphone being used

5. Tape (masking and electric or painters)

6. Binder clip

7. Plastic or canvas bag

8. Plastic gym scooter like this or if these are not available simply waking or using a similar wheeled item, like a moving dolly, also works

With millions of dollars invested in creating and running an ROV expedition, there’s very little room for error. Although the ROV does have a camera, it’s still tricky to operate the craft in an alien environment that you can’t experience first hand. ROV cameras positioned on the front of the ROV serve as the pilot’s eyes. They can “see” what the ROV is seeing. From their seat in the control van, an ROV pilot can view what is currently on camera and screens with more information, such as the location of the ROV and the location of the vessel, in addition to joysticks that control the ROV’s robotic arms. Pilots are typically very experienced and well-versed in the engineering of the ROV they’re maneuvering to precisely steer the robot and anticipate any potential issues.

The view from the bottom of the ocean from an ROV pilot's perspective
The view from the bottom of the ocean from an ROV pilot’s perspective. Credit: Brian Soash
Collecting the sample from the simulated ocean floor
Collecting the sample from the simulated ocean floor. Credit: Kelly Haviland

Teacher Setup:
Using the painters or electrical tape create several 100 cm² squares on the floor throughout the room to place the simulated ocean floor materials. Spread out the ocean floor materials across the squares so that no one square has all of one particular type of item. Set up the simulated ocean floor locations in an adjacent hallway, classroom, opposite corner of the classroom, and/or gymnasium. Chairs or spare desks can be added as barriers separating the students from the simulated location. Be sure to avoid allowing students to see the simulated location and the path to it ahead of time.

Steps For Simulating Ocean Exploration:

  1. Students split into pairs and pick who will be the pilot and who will be the ROV.
  2. Turn on the video conferencing app to connect the student who is acting as the ROV pilot to the student who is acting as the ROV. Place a note card over the ROV student’s phone screen to avoid any accidental touches that might disable the app.  
  3. Tape or attach the phone to a headband where it may still be worn on the head of the student who is serving as the ROV. If the phone is too heavy to still be worn with the headband it could be pulled down and worn as a necklace or taped to the front of the student’s shirt. Students should ensure that the smartphone attached to the student playing the ROV is not covered and will not later be covered by the ROVs movement.
  4. Attach the plastic bag to a belt loop or pant’s waistband of the ROV student using tape or a binder clip. NOTE: Pipe cleaners or other materials from the next section of this activity can be used to create an opening in your bag that does not close as it rests against the ROVs body.
  5. Seat the ROV student on the moving dolly or PE scooter. Students who opt to be the ROV then should have their eyes covered using the blindfold. Be sure the blindfold fits snuggly to avoid movement, but still maintain comfort.
  6. Hand the tool your team designed to the ROV student.
  7. When all pilots and ROVs are ready, start a 10-minute timer for the entire expedition.
  8. When the timer begins the pilot uses their smartphone to see what the ROV student sees. The pilot student then directs the ROV student where to move, where to look, and where or how to use the tool to collect their samples.

ROV pilots give directions to the ROV students to deposit their samples into the collection bag on the ROVs waist and return to the control vehicle before the 10 minutes expires.

Related Segment

A Deep Ocean Dive Is Training NASA For Space

Part 3: Add A Level Of Complexity

ROVs don’t dive under perfect conditions. The ocean’s surface and bottom are both unpredictable realms. Rough seas, winds, strong currents, and a myriad of other elements can call off a dive or add another level of complexity to piloting an ROV. Try adding these additional challenges to the next expedition. To be fair, you can add another five minutes of time to the ROV expedition.

Performing 3D Operations Based Off Of A 2D View

An ROV arm collecting a sample of coral and placing it in a box.
Coral isn’t very easy to collect. Image Photographer: Mountains in the Sea Research Team and IFE. Credit: Mountains in the Sea 2004. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; Les Watling, Chief Scientist, University of Maine. via Flickr

Most organisms, including humans, have the ability to sense depth due to the fact that they typically have more than one eye. This stereoscopic view from two eyes allows the brain to stitch together the images generated by each eye into one image that conveys depth. Although it may seem like not a lot changes when a person switches from two eyes open to one, their ability to perceive depth and the precise location of an object in front of them can be greatly impaired. The same holds true with ROVs. They’re piloted using one main camera, which is the equivalent of having one eye open. This means that all the commands an ROV pilot is trying to accomplish can be more difficult to perform than if they were simply able to do them in person.

Simulate It!


1. Painter’s tape

2. Additional stopwatch, preferably a small and simple handheld

You’ve probably already had some difficulty acquiring some of the objects from the ocean floor due to the circumstances described above, but performing precise maneuvers and delicate procedures can be quite difficult. Set up a ring of blue painter’s tape with a diameter of three meters with eight numbers written on the tape and spaced out evenly around the entire ring.

A ring with the numbers 1-8 written down in a clockwise around the entire ring
Set up for your ROV navigation challenge. Credit: Brian Soash

Pilots guide their ROVs to “land on” all eight numbers in any non-sequential order to see how easily they can perform these delicate maneuvers. When the pilot guides the ROV to the circle the pilot should start an additional timer to calculate the time it takes you to complete this task. The timer should be stopped when the last spot is reached. Record the number of different spots the ROV landed upon and how much time it took to do so, even if the task wasn’t completed. The timer should be stopped when the pilot gives up on this task and decides to pilot the ROV elsewhere. If the pilot decided to attempt this task again, the timer may be started again from the time the ROV re-enters the circle.

Ocean Floor Mapping

A color coded 3D model of the ocean floor
3D model of the ocean floor. Credit: Australian Government Australian Transport Safety Bureau via Wikimedia Commons

Much of the ocean floor is not mapped. ROVs, along with other technology, are very critical in visualizing the undersea landscape. Images from ROVs have to be carefully planned out, acquired, and then stitched together to create a complete picture of the area explored.

A student pretending to be an ROV with a smartphone covering their face
An ROV student mapping the ocean floor. Credit: Kelly Haviland

Simulate It!

1. Image editing software like Microsoft Paint or Google Draw

2. Be sure your smartphone or device has enough memory to take pictures

ROV pilots should guide their ROVs through a grid pattern of their own design that will allow them to capture images of the entire simulated ocean floor. Students should be sure to have plenty of room on their smartphone to capture the images. Some apps allow them to capture images while they’re in the app itself, while others do not. If your apps don’t have that option, be sure students know how to take screenshots. Then, have the ROV pilot student capture screenshots at each section they need in order to complete their mapping of the area. After completing the simulation, the ROV student and ROV pilot should work together using the simple picture editing software or app to edit and combine the screenshots they captured while on their “dive” and create their ocean floor map.

Related Educational Resource

Cephalopod Camouflage: A Beauty That’s Skin Deep

Delicate Touch

Retrieving a crab with an ROV arm
Retrieving a crab Credit: Lophelia II 2010: Oil Seeps and Deep Reefs; NOAA-OER/BOEMRE via NOAA Photo Library

Collecting samples can be a delicate process. Organisms such as coral, crabs, mussels, or sea stars are incredibly delicate. Some ROV arms have haptic feedback, which allows the ROV pilot to “feel” the resistance of an object as it is grabbed or manipulated and can make it easier to acquire materials from the ocean floor. It is still not as precise as physically picking up and moving a delicate object with a human hand. This can sometimes cause fragile samples to accidentally get damaged or destroyed by the robotic arms of the ROV. A broken or destroyed sample can lead to real problems when it comes to collecting accurate data.

Simulate it!

1. Potato chips

2. Uncooked spaghetti noodles

3. Green foam floral block

Teachers should place potato chips and uncooked spaghetti noodles into the green foam floral block so they stand upright on the simulated ocean floor. Student pilots should then guide their partner acting as the ROV to pick up and deposit one unbroken sample into your bag before your ROV returns to the surface. Any samples broken or injured in the process must be returned to the ocean floor and the same procedure must be attempted with another “specimen” so that only undamaged specimens are collected. These procedures can ONLY be performed using the apparatus the students created in the first step of this activity.

Niskin Bottles

A vertical tube with a lid on either end being lowered into the water
Niskin Bottle, Credit Michael Van Woert via Wikimedia Commons

These long, lovely devices work as big tubes that collect water from specific depths of the ocean. This is important as the temperature, chemistry, and biology of each layer of the ocean changes at different depths. These bottles are triggered remotely by the scientists on the ship or by a pressure sensor on the ROV to open and then close when they’ve been filled so they can be returned to the surface to be studied.

Simulate It!

Place several cups of water in the simulated ocean floor area—these cups represent different parts of the water column. ROV pilots should place a straw in the hand of the student acting as the ROV that is NOT holding the apparatus created in part one of this resource. Pilots must then guide the ROV to place the straw inside one of the cups of water. Once the straw is in the cup, the ROV should then place his or her finger over the top of the straw, and remove the straw from the cup holding their finger in place. As long as the ROV’s finger is over the straw, the straw should hold a sample from the simulated water column. ROV students should then complete their simulated dive without losing the sample of the water collected from the cup.

Related Article

Meet A ‘Blue Planet’ Sub Pilot


Directions: Students should answer the following reflection questions using a claim, followed by at least two pieces of evidence cited directly from your experiences, and a rationale as to why those pieces of evidence support the claim you made based on their experiences from this activity.


  1. What, in your opinion, was the most difficult aspect of your simulated ocean exploration? Why?
  2. What advances in technology do you think we as humans need to make in order to make ocean exploration easier? Provide reasoning to support your claim using specific evidence from your experiences in this resource.
  3. As you’ve experienced in this activity, piloting an ROV can be a difficult task. It requires highly specialized equipment and professionals in order to pull off an expedition. Even then, materials can still be difficult or impossible to acquire, equipment can malfunction, and weather can delay or stop ROV dives. With these factors in mind, and the cost of ocean exploration being so high, do you think ocean exploration is worth the cost?  Why or why not?
  4. Remote operated vehicles or ROVs are one of the ways of reducing cost and risk to human life in ocean exploration. However, ROV dives can present their own challenges. Based on what you learned from the dive simulation, do you think efforts should be focused on the development of ROVs or manned exploration of the world’s oceans? Provide specific experiences you had during the activity to support your answer.

Extension Activity: Perform A Complete Dive

Dives don’t typically center around one task. While at the bottom of the ocean scientists may discover something completely new and try to collect a sample that they never originally planned on collecting. ROVs and pilots need to be capable of performing a variety of functions at a moment’s notice because exploring the ocean floor is literally diving into the unknown.

Simulate It!

Using the setup from the previous challenges, allow ROVs and their pilots 25 minutes to attempt to perform all of the functions and return to the surface. All of the same rules and stipulations apply.

Extension Reflection Question:
As an experienced ROV who completed all of the previous missions before attempting this final simulation. Do you feel your previous experience had made this simulation easier even when you had to perform every operation? Why or why not? Cite specific examples from this final simulation as well as previous simulations to support your claim.

NGSS Standards

MS-ETS1-1 Engineering Design

Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-4 Engineering Design

Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.



On June 9, 2020 this education resource was corrected to include a more accurate estimate of the range of daily operational costs of ROV-equipped research expeditions, and a revision of language to indicate that some ROV’s may be retooled during active dives.  


Written by Brian Soash
Editing: Ariel Zych, Lauren Young
Digital production: Lauren Young, Ariel Zych, Brian Soash

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About Brian Soash

Brian Soash was Science Friday’s educator community leader. He worked to connect educators, schools, and districts with the outstanding educational content being developed by Science Friday.

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