Explorer Interview: Paul Spaur

This is a repost from the original interview of Paul Spaur as part of the OpenExplorer-Journal series by David Lang.

Paul and his team recently completed a series of 120 research dives with 5 OpenROVs. Most recently they discuss current deployment of OpenROVs in a recent oil-spill.

The Pirate Lab at CSU Channel Islands ran a semester course with the main goal of testing how new maker tools-—drones, 3D printers, ROVs, and sensors-—can be used for environmental research and conservation. They never expected they’d be using those tools to be responding to oil spills (which they are now).
Follow the Oil Spill Expedition Here


David: Hey everyone! This is David Lang. I’m at OpenROV headquarters doing another one of these explorer interviews with some really interesting folks. I have Paul and Sean from CSU Channel Islands. So where are you guys based right now?

Sean: Our mainland campus is in Camarillo, CA, which is about halfway between Santa Barbara and Downtown L.A., in coastal California.

D: Awesome. And you guys have been doing a lot of really cool, and I think really pioneering, work in using some of these low-cost maker tools and seeing how they can be applied for conservation and science and exploration. I think all of that stuff is really fascinating, but I actually want to start in a different spot which is this oil spill. You guys are right in the thick of it. Maybe I can hear from you, because I’m reading articles about the oil spill in Refugio State Park, but maybe you can give me an update about what you’ve seen and what you’ve been through in the past week.

S: I’ll give you a quick overview and then Paul can tell you what he’s been scheming up in the last couple of days. Essentially what happened was we had this thing called the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, and that caused all kinds of interesting policy changes and all kinds of neat things. One of the things it did was put a really bad taste in people’s mouths in the Santa Barbara Channel for oil spills, and so in the 1980's [we passed] some laws, changed some rules, and essentially tried to, as much as possible, stop using tankers whenever we could to move oil around the Santa Barbara Channel, and instead try to push oil movement into pipelines. The pipeline that broke a week ago today was a consequence of that.

What happened was we have a thing called the Pacific Coast Highway, which is also called Highway 1, that goes right along the coast. In our part of the world it goes literally right on the coast, around the cliff-side. There was the ocean, then there’s PCH, and then just a couple hundred feet to the side of PCH on the landward side is this pipe in the ground, and that essentially broke. This will be a very interesting spill for a couple reasons. One, we’re going to know pretty much exactly what happens. Today they started excavating the pipe from the ground, but in 2013 the agency that regulates these pipelines changed. The Federal Department of Transportation became the default entity that’s in charge of it. They require every two or three years that these pipelines be inspected. This was actually the exact time that this pipeline was supposed to be inspected, so they went a couple of months early and did a bunch of pressure tests. They have all of that stuff, and it’s literally sitting on somebody’s desk. It was sitting on someone’s desk the day the pipeline broke. Normally these things happen and you’re like, “Damn I wish we knew what was going on in that pipe!” We don’t know right now, but somewhere somebody knows, so we’ll know about that.

Basically the pipeline broke and about 100,000 gallons of oil spilled onto a little ravine on the side of the freeway, and then it filled up this little pool. It eventually got so high that it filled into a culvert, and that culvert went underneath the Pacific Coast Highway, and that’s what started to dump on the beach. So that was about 20,000-ish gallons of the 100,000 gallons. That beach right there, Refugio State Beach, is heavily oiled, and then some oil got into the water. The most recent data I’ve heard is that the slick has been changing. It’s sort of two-lobed. So the beach is oiled, and then there’s this oil slick that’s sort of stretching out into the ocean.

D: And so about 80% of it was contained in that area?

S: On the landward side, right.

D: There was an oil spill in San Francisco Bay before I got here, but I’ve never seen one of these things. Maybe you could kind of walk me through what it looks like? I mean, when you come across this, I’m assuming both of you guys have been down to check this out. What is the smell like? What is the visual?

S: The first thing is you don’t see it. The first thing is you smell it from really far away. It’s really, really powerful. For example, the very first day, about fourteen hours after the spill happened, we were sampling our first beach, which is called El Capitan, about two miles south of where Refugio is. We smelled a little bit then in the waters and just sort of around us. It was mostly floating out in the water and wasn’t at the beach yet at that point, but later that day we went up the coast and went to where the actual rupture happened, and I had a headache. Paul, did you have a headache?

Paul: No, I didn’t have a headache, but it was quite a pungent smell.

S: Some of the film crews that were filming us — one of them said that one of their cameramen or women, I can’t remember which, actually got sick and wasn’t feeling well. It’s a really, really nasty, horrible, volatile organic kind of smell. It looks like brown snot slash (sic) baked nasty black ooze.

D: And is it all over? Or is it kind of isolated? What is it?

S: They had been scraping it up and scooping it up, but before they started scooping it up — yes. On that one beach it’s pretty much all over everything, so the sand will look like you took a bunch of molasses and dumped it over and then sort of harshly rubbed the molasses off. Some of it is a little bit thin but then a lot of it’s thick.

D: And so — is this your job? Are you guys supposed to show up and help with this?

S: Our job is to be crazy science dudes! So we’re being crazy science dudes! Paul, is this your job?

P: Ya! Well actually… this definitely falls into [my job description]. We’re definitely able to respond to natural disasters. We’re environmental scientists, so of course anything that deals with the environment, we want to be there to characterize the impact or the change.

S: We’re really lucky in that we’re at a university, so we have the flexibility to sort of turn on a dime should we need to, to address some problems. Having said that, the very first job I had in science was studying what’s called “produced water,” which is the sort of junky toxic water that comes out when you pump oil out of the ground, and so I’ve worked on oil spills and things like this for a long time. The other cool thing about our campus is that we’re really student-centered. Sometimes people hear that and they say, “Well every teacher is student-centered,” or, “Every university is student-centered,” and to an extent that’s true, but we really are, especially in our department — which is this crazy long-named department called “Environmental Science and Resource Management.” Our school and then our department is really really student-focused. We involve students in every aspect of all of our research. The OpenROVs are but one example, but I’m sort of the fat old bald professor guy that sits in the back and goes, “We should probably do this,” and Paul is like, “Well this is how we do it!”

And then he talks with his students, and all of the sudden they’re doing stuff — they’re building things, they’re 3D printing things. They’re like, “What if we weld this onto this? What if we do that?” And so we try really hard, within reason, to create fun spaces and interesting spaces where these guys can learn these really, really key skills — not just for the sake of building things, but actually targeting specific applied questions. The other thing is that all of our research, or almost all of our research, is applied. It’s easy for folks to see value in the work we do, whereas sometimes when scientists are more basic or [focused on] pure research it can be harder for people to understand the worth. We’re kind of spoiled in that we work on surveying wetlands, and measuring how many fish are out there, and saving endangered plants — stuff like that!

D: Well I’m really jealous, because we always follow along with Paul’s posts, and we’re like, “Wow, look at what he’s doing!” We’re eagerly anticipating what you guys are going to do next, and I think if I was a student I would certainly like to be there. From my perspective, you guys are really on the leading edge of something, that is, taking all of these new tools like 3D printing and ROVs and drones, and saying, “How do we actually use these out in the field?”

S: Absolutely.

D: (9:15) Nobody knows the answers to those questions. For a long time we’ve had access to these tools, but only a few people have been able to afford them. You guys are just getting out there and using them, which is what people are going to do when all of the sudden they become affordable desktop tools. They’re just going to use them. So I think the things you guys are learning are really, really valuable. I want to bring it back to the oil spill because this is an area that you guys are familiar with, right? I mean this is right along what you guys have been studying, [and you] have been testing out those tools.

S: I was just talking with this reporter, and she was saying, “Oh this one environmental advocacy group, they would really like to put a camera down under the water and see if there’s oil. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a way to do that?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re probably doing that in a couple days!” It’s fun to be able to play around with stuff, and it’s dangerous when academics say this kind of stuff, but there really is something that’s changed in the last year or couple years.

Paul is an incredible mechanic and electrical wizard and all of that kind of great stuff. That is a massive part of this, but it something is really different now: with OpenROV-type technology, with Arduino stuff, with Raspberry Pi, with miniaturization and cellphone-ization and the low power demands of this stuff, and the ease with which we can program it. The key part is having these 3D printers. We’re a little teeny small school, right? We don’t have a big massive engineering program with a CNC machine. Just a few years ago, if we needed something we would have had to print it up.

A story I like to tell happened last semester. I was unfortunately the chair of my department, which is totally scary, and so I have a gazillion students in my lab. I went down to the lab and Paul was showing me an attachment he made for our OpenROV, a laser or sight thing. He showed it to me and said, “Okay you have this, and then we can hang the GoPro off of this,” and he showed me this 3D printed part. I looked at it and I said, “Oh man, that looks a little thin, and we’re super crazy poor, so if we lose that GoPro we’re screwed, right? Nah, that’s not going to work.” Because I was chair I was hardly in my lab, so I just turn around to leave, and then all of these other students were asking, “How do you identify this insect?!” or, “What’s this thing with this bat poop?!” So I start answering the questions, and my family is like, “You’re supposed to be home for dinner!” So as I was leaving — this is now 45 minutes later — Paul was like, “Well, how about this?” It’s this green piece of plastic, and I said, “Dude, I told you — the walls are too thin! They’ve got to be a couple of millimeters thicker to hold the GoPro,” and he says, “No, no I did that.” He goes, “Yeah, yeah I made them all thicker like you asked, and here it is.” He had made a whole other part in like 30–40 minutes. It’s hard to say how big a game-changer that is for us: a little small department that doesn’t have a lot of money and doesn’t have a lot of pockets in our engineering department where we can just go ask someone to fix something. Essentially everybody needs a Paul, and everybody needs a 3D printer, and then you can rock your OpenROVs — no problemo!

D: Well this is one thing we’ve realized, and Eric, my business partner, said that to me one day. He said, “David, I think the Maker Movement and the science community are on this collision course.” I think ever since he said that it’s really made a lot of sense, because now I’m meeting all of these scientists who are saying, “Wait, you mean I can make this? And it will allow me to do this?!” And then the makers are like, “Ya, of course!” And then the makers will say, “Wait, you mean if I make this then I can go and learn and ask this question?” It’s this really cool feedback loop where the makers start asking really interesting questions, and the scientists get excited because they realize they can build these things faster. It’s a really cool thing, and I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going to go, but everyone’s sense is that it’s this really interesting direction.

One more thing about the oil spill. Paul and I traded a few messages, and I almost drove down there because I really want to drop an ROV in and see what this looks like. When I think of oil spills they’ve always been headlines, but I’ve never actually seen one. I only think of seabirds covered in oil. Those pictures are really gut-wrenching and they really draw you in, but I would love to see what is going on beneath the surface, and I think a lot of people feel the same way. I can’t really remember or recall any footage of anyone who’s ever done that, so Paul and I were trading these emails saying, can we do this? It sounds like you guys are working on actually making that happen!

S: Ya, so the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was the last major oil spill to happen in this area, really was a watershed event. Not only did it lead to all of this environmental policy and a whole lot of things like that, but for the viewers it really set a whole narrative for how we think of oil spills. It set up the whole narrative of the bad, evil oil company, and the saintly little environmental group. It set up how the media portrays oil spills. The classic vision of the oil spill is the oiled seabird, for example, after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill. It goes on and on, and is a whole interesting sociology, but it not only affected how the public sees oil spills, but I would argue that it screwed up how we scientists think of oil spills.

Ever since then we’ve thought of the skin and the edge of the ocean as where the oil spills happen. It’s on the surface where the whales are trying to breathe, where the birds are trying to dive through, and then it’s on the edge where it’s hitting the wetlands or the beaches or the rocky intertidal. Those are problems and real things that are happening, but there’s a huge amount of potential toxicity that happens in the water column, and then that happens down deep. For example when the Santa Barbara oil spill happened in ‘69, it was like, “Oh my god, the world’s gonna end!” Then the primary flows for eleven days, and then it flowed for about a year at least, but the main flow is about eleven days. After that eleven days — you know, twenty days, twenty-five days later, people are still able to fish. People are saying, “The world didn’t end. Why?” They said, “Oh because we had some storms that came and chopped up the surface of the ocean, so it mushed up that oil and that oil went down (laughs).” As if going away is all good! That couldn’t have any negative effects (laughs)! Especially back in ‘69, we had a limited ability to go down underneath and look. The Deepwater Horizon was the first category of a very different type of oil spill where the majority of the impacts are at the mid-water or on the bottom of the ocean. Using tools like OpenROV, we can see that much more easily.

One of the things we’re interested in doing is one, just seeing if there’s oil there — that’s interesting in this oil spill. We’re also interested in [seeing whether] we can turn OpenROV into a kit, right? Into a go-kit. Maybe you can’t afford $100,000 for one of these big fancy ROV things, but you probably can afford $1,000, or if we tricked it out and made it super high tech — maybe with a fluorescent camera and stuff — maybe it’s $2,000. We can use $2,000, right? We can throw that $2,000 thing into a sea of mucky, ugly stuff, and use that tool. I can envision, as part of the go-kit when you have an oil spill, you know you have a backpack or maybe a Pelican case with stuff in there, and then you just grab your OpenROV kits and you run out. They’re small enough that it’s the perfect size. I think for at least the shallow sub-tidal, the stuff shallower than 100' or so, it’s probably a fantastic tool. We just need to try it out a little bit and show the proof of concept.

D: That’s really interesting. I want to add two aspects to that, because there are some interesting things that I’ve noticed in developing this and watching how the community actually uses it. In a previous explorer interview we were talking with Laura James, the woman who discovered Sea Star Wasting Syndrome in Seattle. She’s an amateur who is also part of the OpenROV community. We started talking about the idea of slow science — of having people who are out there over a consistent amount of time getting feedback. Birders are really good at this and amateur astronomers are really good at this. I think it’s really an important idea, but on the flip-side, I also like the idea of really fast science — of having this network of people who are not just around the country and coastlines, but people who are all over the world. There are thousands of people in this community who have these ROVs. If you have not just a go-kit, but kind of a protocol saying, here’s how you react to a situation like this, I think you’re not just mobilizing a small group of people, you’re potentially training a kind of new class of [……?].

S: Definitely. It also opens the door to get citizen scientists involved. For example, these areas that don’t have active oil. You can go up there and take a look, and not necessarily get yourself in the hot zone, but you can involve citizen scientists and long term monitoring projects, or fast response ones too.

D: So Paul, maybe I’ll jump to you. You guys were out there. I mean, you guys have been doing a lot of really cool stuff: doing transects with your ROV. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing with students?

P: In regard to the oil spill or prior stuff?

D: Prior stuff.

P: Okay, so basically for those that don’t know me, my name is Paul Spaur, and I lead the Aerial and Aquatic Robot Research Team, which is the AARR, or “Aaaarrrrrhhh!”

We’re a part of the pirate lab, which is Dr. Sean Anderson’s — right there. Pirate Lab — so it’s the “Aaaarrrrrhh” pirate lab. (laughs) Anyways, we’ve been using OpenROVs for almost a year and a half now. We have about five of them, and we’ve been using the 2.6 and the 2.7 models and going out to Santa Rosa Island and basically vetting the system for use in environmental science research. We’ve been looking mostly at marine ecology. The two main research projects that we just finished up are the “Marine Protected Area Study,” which is right outside of Becher’s Bay, which is next to our Santa Rosa Island research station. We’ve basically been using the ROVs to run transects and do counts of fish inside and outside of the marine protected areas. Essentially this is a way for us to get a good idea of how healthy a marine protected area is, and how well it’s doing its job in being a place where fish can go and populate outside the pressures of fishing. That’s one of our biggest ones that we’ve been working on. We’re going to continue to do that as we get more time out there and more resources.

The other project which is also really interesting is the intertidal ecology one. Intertidal ecology traditionally is a survey that’s done on the shore. You usually go to an intertidal zone where there are tide pools. There’s a high, mid, low, and a sub-tidal zone. There’s also a splash zone, and that’s the area that just gets kind of splashed with water. There are already established protocols for intertidal ecology. The National Park Service basically goes up to the Channel Islands on an annual basis and does surveys of the organisms that live there and their interactions with their environment.

What we’re interested in specifically, and I know you’ve mentioned this before, is the Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. One of the things we’re interested in looking at is whether the sea stars are retreating further into the sub-tidal zone. You see them a lot of the time in the low intertidal zone, and we’re wondering if with the Sea Star Wasting Syndrome they’re going a bit further. We’re also curious about invasive species and how they effect the low intertidal and the high sub-tidal area, so we developed a system in which we take the OpenROV, and we have a mount that ratchet straps either onto an inflatable boat or a kayak, and we’re able to take two monofilament lines, which is basically fishing line, and attach that to the shore in the mid-tide zone. [Then we] go out with the kayak or with the inflatable boat and then send in the ROV, kind of on rails. The reason we do this is because the intertidal zone we’re looking at is very rocky. It’s pretty decently shallow and has a lot of seagrass, and it’s very dangerous to send in divers. These areas are actually seldom surveyed.

D: The other benefit of that is that you get the consistency. If you know where you’re going you’re hitting the same area over time. That’s pretty cool.

P: It gives us a good view of what’s going on underneath the waves. It’s a brand new thing that’s never actually been tried, so we actually just successfully trialed the OpenROV the last time we were at Santa Rosa Island.

The last thing we’re doing is working on doing a marine life behavior study in which we’re taking our OpenROVs and kind of disguising some of them. We’re working on making one of them look like a manta ray. We’re doing different colors, different motors, and seeing how the fish populations respond to the ROVs presence. We’re looking for FADs, which are “fish accumulating devices,” where there are fronts. When you’re looking at the ocean surface and you see kind of a disturbance that’s not quite from the wind, that means there’s something under the surface where the current is kind of touching, and it’s making the water a little bit turbulent in that area. We’re looking for these areas where there are high populations of fish, and we’re sending in the ROVs and kind of observing how the marine life behaves to different form factors, colors, and shapes of ROVs and also sounds. That’s the study we’re just now kicking off the ground, and so that’s what we’ll be working on until the next year.

D: Cool! I can’t wait.

S: It’s super cool!

D: That’s so exciting. I mean that’s a very publishable paper (24:54) Along those lines I would point you to a TED Talk by Edie Widder. I don’t know if you’ve seen this?

P: No, I haven’t.

D: She’s a marine biologist who…

S: Oh, Edie!! Oh yeah! The bioluminescence!

D: Exactly. She gave a great TED Talk though, about going to look for the giant squid, and she played this sound with the ROVs they were using.

P: Oh, interesting.

D: And she showed that the ones with the electric motor were much much quieter than the hydraulic ones, and that was the one that she eventually found the giant squid with. I would check out some of her work. She’s done a lot of that.

P: Terribly interesting — yeah.

D: One of the things that I’m trying to encourage more is the sharing of this kind of tacit knowledge that you guys have built, because it’s one thing for us to publish all of the build designs and make sure that everyone is building the same ROV, but some of the stuff you guys are learning is really cutting edge stuff. I mean, you guys are on the front lines of this whole new potential way for people, even citizens, to monitor and protect their environment, and I want to make sure that we’re all learning together… And share some of the things that you normally wouldn’t share. Maybe you would share a video but you wouldn’t share how you built the boat and the line and the track and all of these things — or you know, what’s in the go_bag, etc. I think there’s a lot of potential for us to learn together. I don’t know if you guys have any kind of plans about what you’re going to do to share what you’re learning, but I’m really eager to keep following along.

P: Yeah. I’ll jump in really quick. We do have a blog which we post pretty regularly on, and every time I put up a blog post I try to mirror it with Open Explorer. Unfortunately with Open Explorer it doesn’t get up there every single time. It might be like a week or two delay between our blog posts and Open Explorer, but we try to do it that way. In the future I definitely have 3D models which I’d like to share with the community, one being our payload system that we use. We’ve already shared it with some of the individual makers who have contacted us through my Twitter, but we definitely want to make these 3D models available to everyone. I’ll be sharing a little bit more information, but it’s kind of a thing where we’re out doing so much research all the time, that when we get some down-time posting up things is kind of falling by the wayside. We have so much stuff to do!

D: That’s fine, I mean you guys are dealing with oil spills!

S: The other thing to say is that this year, to be totally clear, this year wasn’t to do research. We weren’t trying to do any research this year. This year was rather, “Let’s vet this platform and let’s try it out and see what’s going to work for us and let’s tweak it out and see capabilities.” So the goal here wasn’t to achieve a particular research charter. The goal was just to see if OpenROV is really going to work for us.

We’ve done that, and the other thing is we’ve been building up a cadre of students, students that came in and knew nothing about soldering and knew nothing about programming and nothing about whatever. They watched some YouTube videos and then the intermediate kids show them, and then the expert kids show the intermediate kids. My students really created this organic learning community within the lab, and then that sort of extended out to the high school and the middle school that we work with. We’re getting stuff figured out. So from next year forward, as we start doing our projects — we tried to require everyone doing a blog post this year but it didn’t really work — but starting next year as we get more serious and actually get into the research, I think we will be doing postings just like David is saying, and absolutely trying to document the stuff that people are doing, as much as possible making it outward facing with designs and plans and stuff too.

D: Totally. That’s very cool. Well I’m going to keep this kind of short, so let’s wrap it up now so that people who are watching it can get a little 45 minute fun thing, but we’ll post this online and I’ll post links to your work and to your Open Explorer feeds. I’m really eager to hear how the dive goes, so please keep me posted. Please keep all of us posted! We’d love to do this again, because you guys are doing too much — we’ve got to keep track! Have a good night!

P: Thank you. You too!