The U.S. Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research has awarded New Jersey-based Rutgers University a $618,000 grant to develop a drone that could speed search-and-rescue operations, monitor the spread of oil spills and even help the Navy rapidly defuse threats from underwater mines, according to the university.
Rutgers says the drone in development is equally adept at flying through the air and navigating underwater.
Javier Diez, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, had been dabbling with the concept for years with the help of his graduate and undergraduate students. But when he demonstrated it to Navy research officials earlier this year, they almost immediately funded his work on new versions of the air-and-water craft, the university says.
“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,” explains Diez. ”In a sense, we are defying nature rather than emulating it.”
For search and rescue, the vehicle could scan the water to locate missing swimmers and sailors and, upon spotting shipwreck debris, could dip underwater to further examine the scene. At an oil spill site, it could map the spread of a spill and see how deep the plume reaches.
The drone could also help engineers inspect underwater structures, such as bridge and dock piers, ship hulls and oil drilling platforms.
According to Rutgers, what makes the concept most attractive to the Navy is the drone’s potential for mapping mines.
“Mines are probably the biggest problem for the Navy,” says Diez. “They need to map where mines are. Now there are a lot of false positives. This could be a better technology to rapidly investigate these potential threats.”
Diez says much work still needs to be done: For example, the models that he and his students have demonstrated are tethered by a thin wire to a controller, as typical radio signals can’t penetrate the water. To cut the cord, engineers will study ways to control vehicles acoustically – with sound pulses instead of radio waves.
He adds, “By next summer, we plan to demonstrate a vehicle that can swim in a seawater environment and do complex maneuvers. At that point, we’ll start to outfit it with whatever sensors the Navy wants to have, such as cameras and sonar detectors.”