A Drone and a Hurricane - Fathom in Belize

“Hurricane Earl leaves a path of destruction on Ambergris Caye” - The San Pedro Sun, August 4th. 

We arrived August 6th.



Not exactly the weather report you hope for when you start packing. But, with our Kickstarter campaign around the corner, and flights booked, we boarded a plane in Grand Rapids and hoped for a Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow scenario in Belize. 

To set the stage and the stakes:

  1. Number of working drones: 1
  2. Days until Kickstarter Launch: 24
  3. Career opportunities turned down: 3
  4. Funds in the company bank account: $150

Needless to say, there was quite a bit on the line at this point. 

To be clear, we did not self fund this trip. We we’re lucky enough to have familial connections with a surplus of unused frequent flier miles. Enough to get us down to Ambergris Caye, Belize on a shoestring budget with a mission to showcase the Fathom One in one of the premier dive sites of the world, also home to some of the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life.  



But first, this week's driving culture highlight: golf carts.

In Dubai, 4-lane highways pave the landscape, offering the spectacle of super cars in their natural habitat (100+ MPH). San Pedro on the other hand, a small city off the eastern coast of the Belizean mainland on the Ambergris Caye, is comprised of narrow and labyrinthine roads. So narrow in fact that 99 of every 100 cars you see, are actually golf carts. The city follows the peninsula, stretching only several miles north and south, and roughly one-third of a mile latitudinally. As a result there are only three, count ‘um, three roads that run north and south through the city, logically referred to as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd street. I’m sure they had more creative names, but no one used them. Numbers were both more descriptive and easier to remember than the abstract ‘pelican path’ or ’sea turtle trail’. And while driving a golf cart all week was a blast, it also reached at a deeper feeling of community and family felt throughout the city.



Hurricane Earl swept through Ambergris Caye just days before we arrived, and in the process wiped out 95% of the docks and structures built along the beachfront. The first picture in this post is of the Palapa Bar and Grill, completely destroyed in the storm. Marked in the water by a circle of seabed without any seagrass, every piece of kitchen equipment was sunken in the sand, ten feet underwater. By the time we got had explored the beach enough to find the wreckage, individuals in the community had gathered at the site, pulling grills, dishwashers, and fridges to shore. Mind you, these we’re not even employees at Palapas, but rather community members that felt the urge to lend a hand. This mindset seemed to follow us throughout the trip, with each person we met being more genuine, friendly, and selfless than the last.



Anyways, back to the story. We arrived in Belize with a mission: bring the Fathom One underwater drone to an amazing location and explore. But as we’d soon discover, even the best laid plans often go awry. We boarded a small prop plane that taxied us from the mainland to San Pedro, rented a golf cart, and off we went, drone in hand, only to discover a decimated coastline. Luckily, in a twist of fate, it turns out that the wildlife was totally cool with damaged docks and piers, in fact, in someways they prefer it.  



In the wake of the hurricane, debris was left scattered along the coast. This debris offered new hiding places for small fish, like the one above, to escape the chase of hungry predators. And while the storm may have left the people of San Pedro shaken, the marine life were right at home. 

Belize is home to the second largest coral reef system in the world, the first being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef system is also classified as a ‘barrier reef’ as it runs parallel to the shore as a sort of ‘barrier'. This is where we did much of the filming that made it into our Kickstarter campaign. More specifically, we dove at a site named Hol Chan, a Mayan phrase meaning ‘little channel’. Quite literally, Hol Chan is natural channel cut into the reef about 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Within this channel, wildlife abounds. 



Unfortunately our good fortune wouldn't last. We began experiencing issues with the prototype drone the following day and thus began our expedition for electrical equipment in a small Belizean city. 

All we really needed was a soldering iron and solder to fix an electrical connection that we had accidentally severed the day before. Climbing into our cart, we search out a local hardware store, but to no avail, they were fresh out of soldering irons, go figure. We spent the day scouring the city, but the combination of the recent hurricane disrupting normal restocking, in conjunction with the fact that normal people don’t usually need to solder anything while on vacation, we were stranded. It wasn’t until late in the evening the following day on a trip to grab a few liters of purified water that we happened across a convenience store to which we had not been. There, tucked into the dark back corner of the shop, between a shovel and a few rolls of duct tape, were not one, but two different soldering irons and spare solder to boot. We paid a very confused shop manager $9 Belizean, or $4.50 USD, (Belize has a fixed 2 to 1 exchanged rate with the U.S.) for the most valuable item I will likely ever purchase in the country of Belize. The next day, this picture was taken, as we simultaneously repaired our hopes, dreams, and drone.



With the alpha prototype of the Fathom One repaired, and a couple days left in San Pedro, we set out for one last ambitious expedition to film. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have any pictures of this set up, because it involved exposed electronics, zip ties, and party balloons. 



Essentially, do you see that white pill-shaped container? That was the original Fathom One Buoy. It was never meant to be a permanent solution, as it didn’t have a way to manage the tether used with the drone. It did, however, turn on, which was good enough for us at the time. Our plan was to get the drone out to the end of a collapsed dock, with the only issue being the whole collapsed thing. In it’s then present state, this dock consisted of two small sections. Dock A, still connected to the beach, and extending no more than 20 feet towards the sea, and Dock B, located another 100 feet past the end of Dock A, held up by several dock posts that were just too stubborn to be ripped out by little old Hurricane Earl. Getting to Dock B required a bit of a swim.



We had flippers, snorkels, and plenty of ambition, but we also had a patched together drone (our only one, let me remind you), a very not-waterproof Playstation 2 controller, and the aforementioned buoy, which had an entirely open side where all the electronics were inserted. The solution? A swim cap of sorts for the buoy to hold in the electronics and keep out the water. This cap was made from jumbo party balloons, purchased from the same corner store where we bought the soldering iron, (we had to stay loyal at this point, of course) stretched over the top and secured using cut-up balloons fashioned into makeshift rubber bands. The buoy was zip tied to our ps2 controller, which was in turn zip tied to our spool of tether. With everything sorted, we began our swim.

Side note: If you're reading this and you're nervous about the build quality of our current drones, no need to worry, we are have much better facilities than an Airbnb in San Pedro in which to build the current Fathom One, the world's most affordable, portable, underwater drone. 

As much as I wish I could say that story gets better, an untimely wave washed away those dreams. If you were wondering how Playstation 2 controllers handle salt water, the answer is: terribly. 

We retreated with our flippers between our legs and decided it might be better to return with the content we had already captured than risk losing the only working drone we had at the time. With that, we packed our bags, returned our golf cart, and hopped in a little prop plane headed for the mainland. 

An update to the checklist from the top of the page at the end of the trip:

  1. Number of working drones: 0.5
  2. Days until Kickstarter Launch: 16
  3. Career opportunities turned down: Still 3
  4. Funds in the company bank account: < $100



Until next time,


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Fathom Spotlight: Thomas Volk

Our second Fathom user spotlight of the month is Thomas Volk. Thomas is an avid fisherman living in North Dakota. He first backed the project on Kickstarter because he feels the drone will be a perfect tool for ice fishing, a hobby of his for the past 28 years. During his time as a beta tester, Thomas hopes to use the drone in order to scout ideal fishing locations under the ice. Because of the F1’s small size, he will be able to fit it through a hole in the ice and navigate it through the ice depths in order to see where all the fish are hiding.


Hats off to Thomas for this creative use-case and also for suggesting a neat attachment we hadn’t previously thought of: a light on top of the drone that would allow an ice fisher to find the drone under the ice. A bright enough light would shine through the ice and indicate the drone’s position. That way, if you see a bunch of fish on the camera, you can drive the drone up to the sheet of ice and cut your new hole wherever you see the light shining.

Thomas has lots of experience with the outdoors. Growing up, his nickname (which he still uses to this day) was “Natureboy” because of his love of camping, fishing, hunting, and outdoor activities. Thomas also has experience building his own underwater drone! In order to capture better fishing footage, he constructed an underwater ROV out of PVC, plexiglass, a waterproof camera, and bilge pump motors (See picture).  In order to get better motion, Thomas rigged the vertical motors up with a dimmer switch, allowing him more fine-tuned control. We are very impressed with this story and are definitely going to hire Thomas as our technical lead should anything ever happen to John.

Anyway, when I asked Thomas about his coolest experience on the water, he told me about a time that he discovered a new fishing lake. He obtained detailed fishing records and did some intense data analysis to figure out that this new, previously un-fished lake would be a prime spot. On his first trip there, he caught a perch, the length of which tied the North Dakota state record.

Here’s hoping the F1 helps Thomas scope out new waters for more record-breaking fishing! We are very much looking forward to getting his feedback during our upcoming beta test.


Want to see more stories like these? Stay up to date on all things Fathom by joining our Newsletter. 

Fathom Spotlight: Tanner Stiehl

This month we are starting something new. We will be interviewing Fathom community members that have awesome stories. On our website we will be giving you their scoop on their work, hobbies, and passions, and how it all relates to the Fathom One. We hope that you will find these spotlights entertaining and inspirational during your own underwater adventures.

Fathom Spotlight: Tanner Stiehl

Interviewed by Chris Seto

Our first underwater expeditioner of the month is Mr. Tanner Stiehl. Tanner lives in New York City where he works for the US Coast Guard as a marine investigator. Basically, whenever there is a commercial shipping accident, Tanner is responsible for determining the root cause of the event. In addition to his work in the Coast Guard, Tanner is also a graduate student working on his master’s degree in fisheries.


If you’re like me, you’ve noticed a pattern of water-related activities at this point. I asked Tanner about how he got into his nautical lifestyle and he told me that he had always been drawn to water from the time he was very young. While growing up, he worked as a lifeguard, competed on the swim team, and always had a fascination with fish.

As such, his dream job would be to host some kind of fishing show which would allow him to combine his love of marine life with his degree, which is in media and communication. His show would focus not only on the sport of fishing but rather emphasize the interesting variations in biology found in different regions. Tanner already does this to some extent on his youtube channel: tmantanman and instagram: @fishfactsdaily


This is the primary reason that Tanner decided to back the Fathom One on Kickstarter and agreed to beta test for us. He feels that the drone would allow him to capture incredible footage of marine life and better educate his followers about these creatures. So far he has been using stationary underwater cameras on fishing line and has managed to capture all of these incredible images so we are really looking forward to seeing what he can do with a functional drone. The number one spot at which he would like to use the drone is off the coast of American Samoa.

When asked about his most memorable experience on the water, Tanner recounted an experience he had while tuna fishing off gulf coast of Mississippi. Despite the abundance of tuna, he was unable to get any hooked fish back to the boat because of the swarm of sharks in the immediate vicinity. Tanner told me about how he stayed out fishing this location all night and that when the sun went down, all he could see in the surrounding water was the yellow gleam of countless shark eyes watching him from the waves.

We are glad that Tanner survived the experience and still wants to go near the water. We are looking forward to working with him during the upcoming Fathom One beta test.


Want to see more stories like these? Stay up to date on all things Fathom by joining our Newsletter. 

7 Nights in Dubai - An underwater drone's trip to the desert



Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Home to ski hills in the desert, rental Lamborghinis, and flying drone taxis.  Admittedly, that last one isn’t a reality quite yet, but it’s not far off. Dubai is a city of surprises, and our team excitedly jumped on the 14-hour flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan to DXB international airport to bring one of our own.

After a congregate thirteen in-flight movies (of which I can remember half) John, Chris, and I found ourselves approaching the city of Dubai as it emerged out of the desert darkness with the shine of bustling metropolis. Artificial islands in the shape of palm branches formed an unorthodox runway as we descended above the Persian Gulf, and caught a glimpse at the country we were entering.



Navigating the terminal, we hopped in one of the queued taxis where our confident driver sped off towards, what I hoped at the time was, the correct hotel (one of two with identical names, located on opposite sides of the city). This is where our first taste of Dubai began.

Many people will say that culture is defined by individualities such as language, religion, and food. I would like to add another option: driving. 

If you thought people didn’t use turn signals in the United States, your position might soften after visiting the United Arab Emirates. It's a free-for-all. Picture driving in a busy city and now spread that city out into the Arabian Desert. Everyone has somewhere to be, and the dude behind you in the Ferrari has an open lane to speed past at a breakneck speed typically reserved for jets and other miscellaneous aircraft. It’s fun, in a I’m-glad-we-invented-airbags kind of way. 




Maybe you're asking at this point, “Why bring an underwater drone to a desert country?" or maybe now you’re wondering what any of this has to do with an underwater drone at all. Both good questions. To answer the first, the Fathom team was lucky enough to be accepted into the Awards for Good competition, hosted annually in the Dubai, UAE. As for the second, if you traveled down some internet rabbit hole and found yourself here, you can learn more about the Fathom One underwater drone here.  


Basically, we traveled halfway around the world to show off the Fathom One, the underwater drone for anyone, and make a case for how it could benefit society. All of this for a million dollar grand prize (yes, that’s million with six zero’s). I may as well just break the news now. No, we didn’t win the million dollars, but we did meet some awesome teams doing some incredible things.




This is Dan. Dan has a freaking awesome bionic arm. He also works with a company called OpenBionics. They're working towards making affordable robotic prosthetics and they’re also the ones that took home the grand prize, and they totally deserved it. I mean… look at that arm!

This isn't to say we didn’t give it our best shot. We truly believe that the Fathom One can help have a positive impact on our environment, our infrastructure, and our students. Unfortunately, due to an unforeseen technical issue, our live demo was a bust. Needless to say, with the demo accounting for a large, *cough* *cough* 35%, portion of the final score, our odds were pretty low.

See below: the moments directly following a technical glitch. John powering through a presentation, me holding a reminder of my failure, and Chris staring into nothingness. 




I’m kidding of course. It was an incredible competition and platform for us to discuss some very important issues and our possible solutions. We met teams from countries around the world all working towards benefiting humanity with their technology. Locals from the area also came out to see what we’d been building, as well as ask critical questions about solving issues like human trafficking, delivering humanitarian aid, and protecting a decaying global environment.




Also seen in a few of these pictures, another idea we’ve been experimenting with for the Fathom One. We make a big deal out of the modularity, but can you honestly say you’ve ever seen the propellers come off a drone and wheels put in their place? Fathom One modularity truly means the sky (or land, or sea) is the limit. the same central unit is built to be modified and adapted to your situation. See more features of the Fathom One drone here.

With the competition out of the way, we had a little bit of free time to head out and explore the city. We walked the Dubai Marina waterfront, explored the multitude of malls scattered across the downtown, and made it to the top of the world at the Burj Khalifa.

One thing you notice off the bat is the architecture. It’s like they gave the New York skyscraper template to the engineers in Dubai, to which they promptly responded "hah, no thanks”. Each building seems to have been conceived of independently and built as such. The resulting cityscape is an intricate yet undeniably impressive puzzle of concrete rivaling that of MC Escher.




Dubai may be home to its multitude of man-made islands, but for each and every island, there are no less than 7 malls, each a testament to how much people like shiny things. Once inside a mall in Dubai (pick a mall, any mall, doesn’t matter) the order of shops you would pass while walking through was as follows: jewelry store, wristwatch store, suit store, repeat. Regardless, they were awesome buildings each with some unique aspect separating it from your average shopping center. Take the Mall of the Emirates for example. Walk to the far side of the building and what you’ll find is the world famous Ski Dubai, a bonafide, genuine, real life ski hill, trapped within the confines of urban sprawl. It really is incredible. It won’t compare to a mountain in the Rockies, but it doesn’t need to. If I had taken a picture five feet to the right, it would have been of a Starbucks. It’s a ski hill inside a mall people!




Anyways, enough about that, let’s move on to Starbucks briefly. Turns out they don’t know how to spell names correctly in Dubai either, but good on them for having some global brand consistency.




In the end I felt that this picture summed up the trip rather well. Sometimes we are all a little awestruck by our own creations as a human species as evidenced by this crowd gathered on a tiny bridge overlooking the Burj Khalifa. But even this towering, two-times-the-height-of-the-empire-state-building, marvel of engineering was inspired by the shape of a simple desert flower. Nature, though its own magnificent masterpiece, is also a fragile one, and one not to be taken for granted.  




When we started Fathom, we wanted to build a company committed to protecting the world that we so eagerly wanted to explore. We will continue to do that to the best of our abilities and we hope all of you will join us in that.




Until next time,