What is an ROV?

“ROV” stands for remotely operated vehicle; ROVs are unoccupied, highly maneuverable underwater robots that can be used to explore ocean depths while being operated by someone at the water surface.

The remotely operated vehicle, Deep Discoverer, being recovered after completing 19 dives during the Windows to the Deep 2019 expedition.

The remotely operated vehicle, Deep Discoverer, being recovered after completing 19 dives during the Windows to the Deep 2019 expedition. Image courtesy of Art Howard, Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, Windows to the Deep 2019. Download image (jpg, 153 KB).

Remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, allow us to explore the ocean without actually being in the ocean.

These underwater robots are controlled by a person typically on a surface vessel, using a joystick in a similar way that you would play a video game. A group of cables, or tether, connects the ROV to the ship, sending electrical signals back and forth between the operator and the vehicle.

Most ROVs are equipped with at least a still camera, video camera, and lights, meaning that they can transit images and video back to the ship. Additional equipment, such as a manipulator or cutting arm, water samplers, and instruments that measure parameters like water clarity and temperature, may also be added to vehicles to allow for sample collection.

First developed for industrial purposes, such as internal and external inspections of underwater pipelines and the structural testing of offshore platforms, ROVs are now used for many applications, many of them scientific. They have proven extremely valuable in ocean exploration and are also used for educational programs at aquaria and to link to scientific expeditions live via the Internet.

ROVs range in size from that of a small computer to as large as a small truck. Larger ROVs are very heavy and need other equipment such as a winch to put them over the side of a ship and into the water.

While using ROVs eliminates the “human presence” in the water, in most cases, ROV operations are simpler and safer to conduct than any type of occupied-submersible or diving operation because operators can stay safe (and dry!) on ship decks. ROVs allow us to investigate areas that are too deep for humans to safely dive themselves, and ROVs can stay underwater much longer than a human diver, expanding the time available for exploration.