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Rutgers University-developed hybrid unmanned vehicle Naviator continues to gain traction as a leading drone innovation
“It was probably the biggest success we have to date,” says Francisco Javier Diez, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers University, USA, who is leading the development of the Naviator multi-medium unmanned aerial and underwater vehicle. “There was a continuous influx of government officials. We were answering questions all day.”
Diez is speaking of a recent demonstration of the Naviator at the US Office of Naval Research’s 2017 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo. Held in Washington, D.C., the biennial expo is the premier science and technology event for the US Navy and Marine Corps, showcasing the latest technological developments and drawing several thousand attendees.
Diez and his team of student engineers released the initial prototype of the drone in 2013. However, he says the turning point came in December 2015 when a video of the Naviator went viral on Facebook, reaching more than 10 million views.
“All of a sudden, we realised we had a real hit,” Diez says. “We didn’t realise how much interest there was until we got the video out.”
The US Office of Naval Research was so impressed with what it saw that it quickly offered the project a US$618,000 (£475,000) grant.
“They told me they’d never seen anything like it,” says Diez, who at first compares the vehicle to what nature does. “There are birds that dive into water and fish that fly,” he says.
But that comparison breaks down quickly. “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,” he says. “In a sense, we are defying nature rather than emulating it.”
Diez predicts many potential applications. For search and rescue, for instance, the vehicle could scan the water from above 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.
But what specifically makes the concept attractive to the R&D arm of the United States Navy? “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.”
And in naval warfare, a fleet of drones could be stationed out of sight in an underwater base or on a submarine. The drones could emerge quickly from the depths, get a quick glimpse of enemy ship deployments, and then hide again.
The Naviator’s triumph at the 2017 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo followed on from historic aerial and underwater demonstrations in June this year, where the drone successfully inspected the Delaware Memorial Bridge twin spans and a 100-passenger vessel at the Cape May ferry terminal, located in Delaware Bay, New Jersey, USA.
“The Naviator’s ability to seamlessly and rapidly transition from flying in the air to manoeuvering underwater provides tremendous opportunities, not only for naval operations, but also for a number of industries,” says Diez. “As these tests demonstrated, what previously might require a helicopter, boat and underwater equipment, the Naviator was able to complete as a single deployment with fewer complications and in less time.”
The drone not only reduces the amount of steps required for a mission, it also can operate in bad weather – when an inspection is sometimes needed the most, Diez says. Rutgers collaborated with the Delaware River Bay Authority (DRBA) to conduct June’s demonstrations.
“Our infrastructure assets are subject to rigorous inspection programmes on an annual basis, and drones have the potential to make these inspections significantly safer and more cost efficient,” says Thomas Cook, DRBA executive director. “The ability to have a single vehicle inspect piers or vessels both above and below the water line is no longer science fiction.”
With the US Navy’s continued support, Diez and his team are working on advancing the technology. They say their next step is to make the Naviator completely autonomous.
“My vision is autonomy: pre-programme the mission and reduce the amount of work for the pilot,” says Diez.