The concept of a drone that can fly just as easily as it can swim has many different commercial applications. The need of a drone to be able to operate in inclement weather is an issue in first response incidents of all types, because response professionals can’t wait for conditions to improve before sending out a drone. Perhaps of even greater importance is the ability for an air/water drone to be able to rapidly deploy into the air and instantly transition to an underwater environment to perform a task.
This kind of vehicle can also significantly ease the complications that professionals are currently dealing with, since many survey applications need to first be reached by helicopter or boat before the underwater vehicle can be deployed. This can all be simplified with a single air/water vehicle.
Part submarine, part aircraft, the “Naviator” is just that. It’s the brainchild of F. Javier Diez-Garias, Associate Professor Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers, and he’s looking to use the Naviator to redefine the expectations we’ve come to associate with drones and other autonomous devices.
Meet the “Naviator”
The Naviator has been designed to provide the kind of reliability professionals want and need from a UAV, but it’s not just about incremental improvements to existing technology. Intended to operate in the air just as easily in the water, the drone that initially started off as a student project is somethingthat Diez has pushed to see evolve since the very beginning.
“This was a project I proposed to our senior students”, Diez explained. “In this particular student project, the goal was to build an air/water drone. After initial discussions with the students, we settled back in 2013 on a drone with a buoyancy system to surface the vehicle to the water and take off. Since then we have moved away from the buoyancy system but it was the original idea that got us started.”
There are students, professors and even entrepreneurs all across the world who have similar ideas around how similar projects might be able to make an impact, but the team at Rutgers realized they were working on something with serious potential early on. As part of the testing, the team filmed the drone going in and out of a kitty pool and it allowed them to realize how easy it was for the drone to go in and out of the water.
Being able to go in and out of the water is a key component of the drones’ ability to operate in inclement weather. Since it was designed from the ground up to be able to operate underwater, by default it is capable of operating in intense weather. During the design phase the team made sure that all the electronics, cables connectors, motors and everything else were capable of handling high pressures underwater which is beyond what would be needed to survive in a rain or snow storm.
Mapping, Scientific and Commercial Implications
While the goals associated with creating a drone that can swim just as easily as it can fly are ambitious on a technical level, that ambition goes far beyond such technical details. The team at Rutgers envisions that the Naviator could create the means to map the entire ocean quickly and efficiently. Doing so would allow anyone to lookup how to reach a certain underwater location, similar to how everyone currently uses Google Maps. Being light, fast and maneuverable, the Naviator could open up countless mapping and commercial opportunities.
Those sorts of mapping capabilities have obvious commercial applications, but the functionality of the Naviator itself might prove to be even more beneficial. The need to map structures such as piers, bridges, oil platforms and off-shore wind turbines can be complicated since many of them have components that are both in and out of the water. By allowing operators to easily input some basic parameters, the drone will eventually be able to autonomously perform a mission in the air and water without an operator. Such capabilities will have an impact in many different fields.
“I think this is going to be a gold mine for researchers,” Diez continued. “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.”
The scientific breakthroughs of the Naviator, from the propulsion system, to the buoyancy design, to control methods in air/water, have already helped redefine expectations around the necessity to gather continuous data in a commercial setting. There’s often a break between surveying what’s underwater and what’s above water, and avoiding that break can be critical. It’s something the Naviator can even do in less than ideal conditions. 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 search and rescue applications are evident, but the inspection of waterways, ships and seaports are just a few of the not so obvious places where we might see it being utilized. Additionally, surveying man-made or natural environmental incidents such as oil and chemical spills, algae blooms and coral bleaching from the air just as easily as the sea could mean an entirely new approach around assessing and solving these issues of critical importance.
The Present and Future of the Naviator
The technology behind and capabilities of the Naviator have come a long way since Diez initially proposed the concept to his students back in 2013. The fifth generation of the Naviator is being tested, and the two vehicles that have been recently built are the NV5-Eva and NV5b. The first one is meant to conduct autonomous missions that Diez and his team just recently demonstrated. The second is tethered and much larger which allows the team to develop more intense capabilities such as the speed of the drone, all of which will lead to something even more powerful.
“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 continued. “Longer term, we hope to have a big impact on the commercial space by opening new doors to doing surveys and other missions that before we didn’t think were possible or were so complicated that were not considered feasible. For instance, being able to quickly map 100 square miles underwater with a few meter resolution could become a reality with this technology.”
Diez and his team are conducting what is considered basic research at Rutgers. It looks at the fundamentals in control, propulsion, communication and optimization methods, but they’re looking to transition to the commercial applications that he’s mentioned have so much potential. That includes applications like additional systems integration, scaling manufacturing, fail safes, and security. Putting together the resources to handle that transition is the main reason they’re looking for investors, since Rutgers is obviously not set up for such large-scale commercial endeavors. It might seem like a difficult barrier to cross, but such things are insignificant once you realize how far they’ve already come.
“Many people said to me that both air and water operation was not possible,” Diez concluded. “We have taken down this barrier. Our technology is a reminder that innovation on the platform end is not only possible but needed. There has been so much focus on the data/sensor part that we forget that there’s a great deal that can be done with the platform itself. We hope to keep pushing the envelope to reach extreme environments such as deep ocean exploration, and extreme temperatures.”
It’s clear that there are scientific, environmental and commercial applications for the results of that push. We’re just at the beginning of seeing and understanding how important those applications will be, but rest assured, they’ll be significant in ways we can only begin to imagine.