Amphibious Drones haven’t been a new novelty. In fact, just watch the opening of James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic film and you’ll see that cameras and underwater gear has been around for quite some time. Using amphibious drones for photography and surveillance in the air goes back even further, in 1898 when the U.S. military attached a camera to a kite during the Spanish–American War. Now however, the next wave of technology is offering a two in one option: drones that can navigate their way both in the air and in the water.
One of the more famous contestants in this space is Rutgers University’s development of The Naviator, designed alongside a team of students is Javier Diez – Associate Professor department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Originally conceived in 2013, Javier led a team of students into uncharted waters with his idea. Over the last several years the team has managed to build a model that both dives into waters and flies with little resistance and fluid ease. “Waterfowl are still better at flying than swimming, and flying fish are still better at swimming than flying. Our device is equally adept at both,” Diez said. ”In a sense, we are defying nature rather than emulating it.”
Government organizations have taken a keen interest in the Naviator. The team received a $618,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research back in 2015 after watching a demonstration. Heavily impressed by the dual capability the military is looking to this technology for next generation capabilities. “…some airplanes that deploy vehicles from the air that you know, dive into the water and then from then on they’re in the water they can’t come back out.” Javier states. Effectively this could be used in emergency situations for “rapid deployment”. This could save on budgets that have separate devices and machines to operate on air and then sea. Currently teams will need to deploy different strategies for handling the different environments or take breaks between land surveillance and sea operations. Bridging the gap between timelines, collected data, and other metrics can take a lot of work. The Naviator could be a great way to speed up operations making servicing, repairs, and surveillance more accessible as well as provide a more cohesive method for collecting data.
Javier also mentions other interests in the application of the Naviator. “The Fish and Wildlife community has already shown interest in these vehicles for tracking fish spawning, but I believe we are going to have the bigger impact on the commercial space.” Indeed, some of the ideas tosses around include monitoring algae blooms, the ability to measure the size of oil spills. A greater understanding of sea life and pollution would certainly help various environmental agencies and help generate solutions. But natural environmental trends aren’t the only thing on the Naviator team’s mind. The drone is also expected to help with inspecting under water infrastructure such as bridges, dams, or docks. Rapidly deployable amphibious drones could help reduce human risk in both reducing human deployed during inspection, and also become reliable even in turbulent conditions.
Search and rescue missions could stand a great gain here, as well as the delivery of medical aid and supplies. The drone has so far shown its ability to seamlessly transition in and out of water meaning it can be deployed from both water, land, or air. The device could be used to identify and locate lost swimmers, sailors, or scout for ship debris, eliminating the need for humans to get into waters to identify and search until the drone has located the target.
So what makes this drone so capable? “It does this using a set of dual blades,” says Marco Maia, a PhD student working on the project. “It has a top and bottom set of propellers, so it never loses thrust during its transition.” The dual blades allows one set to pick up where the other may slack as it hits the transition to either air or water. This is far from the original concept, which started with a drone coupled with a buoy system back in 2013. Lucky for the world, the drone is no longer bogged down with buoys, but in fact works light enough to fly, and float.
The Naviator is not without limitations. Current concerns are centered around how it will be able to transmit data wirelessly. Amphibious Drones & the technology behind them remains unable to transmit radio frequency the same way in water as on land. As such, the current model is tethered to the controller with a thin wire. The team is looking to control the vehicle acoustically using sound pulses instead of radio waves. While sound waves might be the key to expanding the navigation of this device, there are still lags and challenges of communicating underwater. The scalability of the model is also in question, as mounting cameras or sonar detectors to the model will increase weight.
The future of the Naviator is hopefully an autonomous one, meaning is looking to strip down controls completely and be able to deploy it with a set of instructions. “We’re excited about the work we’re currently doing on autonomous drone operation and integration of LiDAR and 3D vision sensors for surveying”, Diez mentions. The challenge here lies in keeping the drone operational with all of the proposed payloads, while still retaining is functionality. The team’s recent funding is sure to help them here.
Still, simply recording information isn’t the only vision on the horizon. “We hope to keep pushing the envelope to reach extreme environments such as deep ocean exploration, and extreme temperatures.” Diez mentions as well. The idea that this could really travel and get into areas that are currently inaccessible to humans seems to be the big motivator here. The Mariana Trench is considered the deepest known part of the world’s ocean. Recorded at its deepest point, Mariana Trench is 35,462 feet deep (10,809 m). Functionality, battery life, and speed all are needed to conquer and explore this mostly uninhabited area. But the camera has a long way to go before it can stand up to the pressures of deep sea diving.
The model is currently getting beefed up to handle all the technical recording and surveying capabilities that would be useful. Water currents can be strong, and the Naviator can operate close to 3.5 knots, although their goal is to eventually get to 10 knots. The fifth generation of the Naviator is currently being tested, with the NV5-Eva and NV5b being the two most recent models.
Rutgers isn’t the only school to develop the technology. Oakland University has also developed an air to sea model, their project starting in 2014, a year after Rutgers research. The model is the Loon Copter, which is named after a common diving duck found in Michigan. The model recently won as 1 of 10 semifinalists in the international Drones for Good competition. The award landed the team $1 million dollars and the top international entry for the Dubai based competition, as well as some well some well-deserved public PR for drone use. It also features a capability that the Naviator doesn’t: it can skim the top of the surface of a body of water or float without expending energy. It submerges as an internal bladder operates to take on water, weighing the model down. This is unlike the Naviator which can rapidly shift between the two.
While it takes time to switch between modes of movement, the skimming surface could be a great use to environmental surveillance. Weather conditions can be collected simultaneously like surface temperature and wind speed. Its ability to float with no energy is a great stride as well since the model will not have to fight elements in order to stay between one stage or the other. Heavy rains and tumultuous winds, will become smaller and smaller challenges in the eyes of drone flight with these progressions of research and development.
Many of the world’s most robust and populated cities revolve around bodies of water. Either on the coast or over rivers. With these cities come an abundance of infrastructure that ensures the well being and daily living on its citizens. Whether it’s inspecting bridges across rivers in land locked locations, filming beautiful seascapes from above and below in one shot, or inspecting oil rigs in the ocean, amphibious drones are sure to find universal application in public and private sectors alike taking to air and sea with ease.
How long will we have to wait for a commercial product? Less than a decade to be sure as the investment and attention to this technology brings on exponential improvements. Other amphibious drones are also taking to the sea and sky with models that can transition between the two. As research and development funding ramps up, we’re sure to see a commercial application as drone startups and enthusiasts try to develop a public device. In the meantime, we do have something for purchase that is remarkably close.
In 2015, a team of three lead by Alex Rodriguez developed a splash proof drone for water deployment. The Kickstarter raised over $300k for what was originally a $17.5 k launch goal with the help of 315 backers. While it doesn’t provide the same transition between water and air as the other models, it does make it less of a risk to navigate your precious drone over water for great shots, fun, and play. Nobody wants their drone to cop out and take a noteworthy dive that would destroy their toy. It is also controllable via Android devices, and designed to use in conjunction with a GoPro camera.
Sea water is still a big challenge to drones. This does mean that you will need to wash, maintain, or replace your motor more often if you have a sea faring model fit for sail. There is also a more serious small scale application for safety and improvement. The Splash Drone can carry an emergency flare on its back to alert others during an emergency, and can also deploy life preservers to drowning people. So while the public isn’t able to get its hands on a truly amphibious drone as of yet, the future is surely not that far.
Jennifer Cameron is the newest addition to the Top Cheap Drones team and is incredibly knowledgeable about all things Quadcopter & Drone related. Look out for her upcoming article topics, you won't be disappointed.