This Navy-funded drone is at home in sea and sky

IDG News Service | Nov 4, 2016

Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have developed a drone that's capable of seamlessly transitioning from flying through the air to navigating in the water.

This amphibious drone is just as comfortable lurking beneath the surface of the water as it is swooping through the skies.

The Navitor, as it’s called, was developed by researchers at Rutgers University and can seamlessly transition between land and water. It even caught the attention of the U.S. Navy, which gave the university a $618,000 grant to develop the project. Michael Benyo is part of the engineering department at the university and says it’s a technology that has been long in the works.

“The transition from air to water is a tough one, that’s a boundary that nobody’s cracked. People have been trying to do this since 1863. So we are feeling kind of proud of ourselves that we’ve been able to do that. The big challenge really is that transition. Going from land to sea.”

So how did they do it? Benyo says the trick is in the propellers.

“What we did was we decided we had two sets of propellers, the propellers above and the propellers below. What happens is there is a sensor, that detects when the drone is in the water, it shuts off the upper propeller and the lower propeller pulls it into the water seamlessly and smoothly.”

Once the drone is fully submerged, both sets of propellers kick back in, but at a much lower rate. This extends the Naviator’s battery life from an hour in the air to 24 hours in the water.

Currently, the drone is flown using radio waves and a controller, but this method of navigation quickly breaks down in the water.

“Radio signals, they just die, within a few meters. So you really can’t use normal radio communications. The normal control just won’t work. You can do some limited communication with ultrasound, and we’re in the process of refining that. But basically, you got to program it, set it free, and have it come back to you.”

Though most of the project’s funding has come from the military, the team at Rutgers hopes to extend the drone’s market to the commercial sector. Benyo says that they are currently working on a new prototype that will have a 7-foot wingspan and be able to carry a much larger payload. Applications may include assessments of oil and chemical spills, bridge and infrastructure surveys, and inspections of underwater pipes.

“As with all drones, you are limited to your imagination.”