You've seen them on television, the underwater robots that go where divers can't. You know the business of business; you don't need to be schooled in the hazards of a small business start-up, financing, management or keeping money in your pocket. Finding your way into a small ROV business requires operational skill, a knack for creating "elegant" solutions--those that are simple and robust--and the drive to penetrate the hyper-exclusive world of underwater robotics.
Take one of the commercially available courses in subsea robotics offered in the UK, the Philippines, Canada or the United States that offer training with all classes of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). Courses vary in length, from six months to two years, depending on your prior experience with electronics, hydraulics, cranes, shipboard and diving operations.
Pay your dues. The underwater industry is different from most; you're expected to have worked in the industry until those you work for say you're ready to "break out." Plan on working for at least 180 days--not six months, but 180 days working as part of an ROV team--before you are considered ready to be trusted to operate an ROV. Once you break out, you will have a reputation with your peers and the money you earn ($375 per day, as of January 2010) can help fund your start up.
Purchase a Class I inspection ROV, one of the small, single operator mini-ROVs, and keep records of your "dives." As of January 2010, these units range in price from $6,000 to $89,000. Use the unit publicly, if possible. Use your business skills to cultivate interest, contacts and contracts in the local community and beyond.
Establish yourself locally. As of January 2010, one of the major industry segments for small firms involves using small Class I ROVs for law enforcement and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) work in port inspection and security. The insurance industry uses small ROV operators to verify the reason for the sinking of pleasure craft, in an effort to eliminate insurance fraud. Local marinas are full of boats that need their hulls cleaned: with the right attachments, a small ROV can perform these services.
Be willing to share your discoveries and developments with the major players in the industry. If you create a special joint that gives a pilot an advantage, industry giants like Oceaneering, Subsea 7, or Canyon Offshore may become a mainstay of your business.
Remember that everything you have or develop in the course of business is for sale.
Be willing to teach the local rescue squad how to fly an ROV, in case your equipment is available for rent, but you're not.
Become a dealer for one or more ROV manufacturers. This involves little more than being a drop-shipping agent, since there are no "stock" configurations.
Generally, the work is on the water, with all the hazards that entails. With small ROVs that are total electric units, you face the risks of working around water with electricity. If you're working with larger ROVs that have hydraulic units, you face the possibility of fines related to the Clean Water Act of 1973 and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.