Fathom, a Consumer-Priced Underwater Drone, Evolved From a Torpedo Into a Fish

The latest version of the Fathom, showing off its lights.

The latest version of the Fathom, showing off its lights. (Photo: Courtesy of Fathom)

Do regular folks want to do science underwater? That’s a question posed by a new paper in the journal BioScience, which reports on a survey of 1,145 Australians about whether or not they would want to help marine scientists gather data.

“Divers stood out as the most enthusiastic group to assist marine research,” Southern Cross University’s Victoria Martin and her collaborators wrote in the new paper. “This is not surprising.”

Science is great, but no one wants to drown for it—only the people who know how to go underwater jump at the chance to help figure out what’s going on down there. That said, maybe non-divers can’t envision a way that they could contribute useful data. Could submersible drones help?

We recently reported on Orbotix’s SeaDrone, a $2,699 device aimed at cutting costs in the aquaculture market (undersea farming). That’s a steep price for someone who just wants to see what’s going under the surface. Starting on August 30, however, another company will offer the Fathom One for preorder on Kickstarter at a more consumer-friendly price of around $600.

The Observer had a phone call with the Michigan-based creators behind the new fish-like robot recently. “We took a lot of these products and said, ‘What do you need to have a great experience to pilot these things?’ ” John Boss, a co-founder, told us. “A lot of these designs are over-engineered.”

To let regular people get started exploring the depths, the Fathom has stripped its features down. It has an HD camera, lights, heading and depth sensors and a microcontroller for its onboard brain (rather than the heavier processor most underwater drones carry). Many submarine drones come with lots more features, like autopilot, but this is the Honda Shadow of swimming robots.

The Fathom went through roughly six big design changes to get here. It began with a torpedo-like shape, evolving into something that imitates a fish. The team hit its stride at the fourth prototype. “It could run into rocks and stuff, and it wouldn’t just break. You didn’t have to handle it like glass any more,” Boss said.

The current design can also be taken apart, which makes it more portable and more customizable. Boss hinted that something about this design saved money on its manufacturing process, though he declined to go into further detail. “That’s kind of our secret sauce,” he said. “It’s allowed us to develop a lot of these things with less precise tolerances.”

The device seen in its promo video has been 3D printed, but the devices shipped to consumers will be injection molded.

“What we set out to do with our company Fathom was to create an underwater drone that was less expensive, effective and was biomimetic, so it was easy to use,” Boss said.

After playing around for a little bit with a $600 submarine drone, users might run out of things to do with their new device. At that point, some of the new Fathom owners might be convinced to lend some of their underwater exploration time to expanding human knowledge. Maybe scientists should start coming up with research ideas for nascent Captain Nemos now?


Fathom, a Consumer-Priced Underwater Drone, Evolved From a Torpedo Into a Fish