Throughout their historic ascension into tech relevancy, multi-rotor drones and their pilots have actively avoided bodies of water as if they were some sort of quadcopter kryptonite. However, a team of engineers from Oakland University’s Embedded Systems Research Laboratory just unveiled a semi-amphibious drone as capable of pulling off aerial flight as it is of executing sub-aquatic navigation. Dubbed the Loon Copter, the aircraft is reportedly the team’s third prototype of the design and is currently one of ten semifinalists in Dubai’s Drones for Good competition. Is there anything a drone won’t be able to do?
Like any other remote-controlled aircraft, the Loon Copter takes off and flies with a simple start of its rotors and a flick of a joystick. As mentioned above, its incredibly innovative difference lies with how it reacts while descending upon a body of water. Before officially taking the plunge, pilots simply land the craft on the water’s surface, where it then has the ability to either float in one spot or move around via its props. To submerge the aircraft, the team needs only to activate the drone’s onboard water pump and begin filling up its ballast chamber.
As the drone starts to gain weight (and sink), it then tips over to its side while sinking, effectively turning it into a multi-rotor underwater submarine. After its buoyancy chamber fills and it’s completely submerged, the Loon Copter’s props re-engage and allow for the pilot to then drive it underwater, rotors forward. Underwater, the drone has the ability to move up or down, turn left or right, and record video via its onboard camera. As expected, bringing the aircraft back to the water’s surface is as easy as just draining its buoyancy chamber of the contained water. Upon reaching the surface, the Loon Copter then rights itself and is once again ready for aerial flight.
“The Loon Copter can loiter on the surface of the water without energy usage,” the drone’s lead scientist Dr. Osamah Rawashdeh tells Gizmag. “It can also change and control depth with little power (no propeller use). Not having to propellers to change depth or resurface also has an advantage when obstacles (e.g. structures or vegetation) are close to the drone. We can resurface without hitting any obstacles.”
Though the Loon Copter looks like the ultimate addition to any hobbyist’s arsenal, Rawashdeh says the group intends for it to be used in a variety of practical ways. Whether it be for underwater pipeline inspections, search-and-rescue procedures, or studying marine life, the Oakland University team has high hopes for the amount of good it can do. Dr. Rawashdeh even went so far as to suggest the Loon Copter of becoming a reliable shark deterrent — that is, it would be able to spot sharks along coastlines, drop in near their location, then scare them away from swimmers.
Despite its multi-faceted skillset, the third generation Loon Copter does come with a few caveats. For starters, its onboard camera does not possess the ability to actively stream video to the pilot’s controller (it must be viewed after a flight or swim ends), nor can it operate much more than a few meters underwater before losing range with its remote control. As research and development continues to move forward on the Loon Copter, Dr. Rawashdeh says the team intends to include these features in the future.
“We are looking into acoustic modems, repeater buoys, and some other techniques that could allow streaming of live video for operator feedback as well as data and control commands,” Dr. Rawashdeh tells Gizmag. “For open-water applications, we can have the vehicle dive at predefined GPS points to various depths autonomously and follow some pre-programmed movement patterns underwater to collect data or video footage.”
The Loon Copter crew plans to be on hand in Dubai February 4 through 6 for the Drones for Good competition, where the Loon will go up against nine other competitors. If all goes well for Dr. Rawashdeh and his team (i.e. Drones for Good names the Loon Copter the winner), they’ll be the happy recipients of a $1 million grand prize. Who said you couldn’t make a living playing with toys?