This versatile drone can dive like a bird and jump like a flying fish

Most of the time, drones aren’t exactly at home in the water. And those that are tend to be limited to staying below the waves.

That’s where a new project carried out by researchers at Imperial College London hopes to shake things up. With their prototype AquaMAV robot, the researchers have created a winged aerial drone not only able to fly in the air, but also to dive into the water and then re-emerge.

“We’re developing a fixed-wing aircraft which can move in both air and water, and transition between the two quickly and reliably,” creators Mirko Kovac and Rob Siddall told Digital Trends.

Impressively, the drone is capable of reaching speeds of around 30 miles per hour from a starting point beneath the water.

The team based the concept for AquaMAV on two animals, both of which possess this ability to operate in both in water and air. These were gannets, the large seabirds in the north Atlantic which hunt fish by diving into the sea from a great height, and flying fish, which make powerful self-propelled leaps out of the water.

The resulting drone is as good below the waterline as it is above it.

“An underwater robot is generally slow moving, and of course can only move along waterways, so by flying we can reach areas of interest far quicker, before diving into the water to perform close observation, take samples, or record data,” the researchers continued. “The AquaMAV is the first fixed-wing aircraft of its kind, and the unique strategy of diving directly into the water and retaking flight with a powerful burst of thrust means it is inherently robust and will transition straight through choppy or rough water.”

As you can imagine, the project presented challenges, the biggest being the requirement to define new scientific principles for mobility in air and water.

“We cannot rely on existing approaches to do that and new, holistic pathways needed to be developed where parts of the robot are multi-functional,” Kovac and Siddall said. “For example the wing folding mechanism can be used to protect the wings on impact with water and also to initiate dynamic flight maneuvers. Also the challenge is an integrative one, because we need to address the design requirements of a swimming robot without compromising those of a flying robot, and vice versa.”

In this latter capacity, the researchers had to ensure that the robot was watertight with the appropriate buoyancy, without making it too heavy to fly.

Fortunately, it all worked, and as the video at the top of the page shows, AquaMAV is up and running (or else down and swimming). There’s still plenty of work to do, however.

We see the AquaMAV making it much easier to gather water samples from hard-to-reach areas, without the need for a fully crewed boat, for example,” Kovac and Siddall said. “The robot you’re seeing right now is our first full prototype, and in the coming months we’re going to be doing extensive field testing, and examining different sensor/sampling payloads, so there’s plenty to look forward to in the near future.”