The Underwater ROV team was organized after the discovery of the Hoyo Negro, or "black pit," in an underwater cave system in Mexico. The cave represents some of the most important archeological finds of recent years, including human remains side-by-side with the bones of extinct megafauna, such as mastodons and other large, now-extinct creatures. Toted as the "holy grail" of underwater cave discoveries, it is extremely important to open the environment to scientists. However, the inaccessibility of Hoyo Negro, whose bottom rests 190 feet (58 meters) below the water's surface and some 4000 feet (1.2 kilometers) from the closest diver-accessible entrance, mandates that the environment be brought to the scientists instead. Rather than remove any artifacts from this pristine archeological site, the National Geographic Society has offered the Engineers for Exploration team an unprecedented opportunity to meet the need of the archeological community by mapping the entire environment in full-color 3D, and so open this otherwise inaccessible location to the wider world.
The Engineers for Exploration program has instituted a dedicated team to meet this need by researching already-existing methods of underwater mapping, developing and integrating our own systems with currently available systems, and designing the remotely-operated vehicle capable of exploring this treacherous environment.
With these goals in mind, research has begun to analyze the feasibility of deployment, cost, and overall efficiency of different imaging systems. A number of technical challenges must be met for the imaging system: the expense cannot be high, the system cannot be physically too large to design a waterproof housing for, and it must be able to efficiently map the underwater environment. Infrared imaging systems, while made affordable by Microsoft through their popular Kinect attachment for the XBOX 360 platform, unfortunately do not meet all the necessary requirements: the infrared wavelength of light used by the Kinect dissipates faster in water than visible light, making visibility extremely poor for the device. Other options, including giga-pan models of creating 3D environments from standard 2D pictures, are being researched instead.
Development also continues on the vehicle design. By using a common configuration of four motors on a rectangular frame, four degrees of freedom (two translational and two rotational) are achieved. Future designs may attempt to reclaim the extra translation and rotational degrees of freedom currently missing, or to obviate the need for the extra rotational freedom by making the design symmetrical around one axis.