8-propeller flying and diving drone

Naviator during pool tests
Naviator during pool tests
Naviator at Delaware Memorial Bridge
Naviator at Delaware Memorial Bridge

What has eight propellers, is as much at home in the air as underwater - and could change the face of all kinds of port and ocean operations?

The answer: a flying, swimming drone called the Naviator which accomplishes it’s aquatic, aeronautic feats by using two sets of propellers; four above, four below, explained Rutgers University project leader, Javier Diez; these have enough power not just to dive in, but to allow the drone to swim upward and take-off from the water.

Last summer, the drone showed off its capabilities by inspecting both the Delaware Memorial Bridge and a passenger ferry. These assessments provided a ‘step change’ for the Naviator said Prof Diez, demonstrating that the continuous picture that comes from Naviator’s “seamless transition from air to water” also yields a commercial advantage. While the drone’s development has benefited from US defence interest, both oil and gas sectors and renewable energy partners are signalling that it may be relevant.

The drone could also provide a valuable solution for security or search and rescue operations which require a speedy response. “To me, the real potential comes from being able to deploy very quickly: if you find there’s an issue in a lake or other body of water, you often need a helicopter to carry out an assessment by air and then get a diver and boat out to site to continue your search,” said Prof Diez.

By contrast “the Naviator can deploy from your vehicle, simply fly over to the area you want to investigate and just dive in”.

Usefully, the drone can also operate in bad weather: as Prof Diez pointed out, the moment you truly want to take a look is probably the time it’s just too dangerous to get people in the air.

It also has another trick up its sleeve to deal with strong currents – an issue common to waters around bridges and other maritime assets “which can result in problems for divers”. While the present model can only make around 4 knots underwater (still 30% more than most ROVs), Prof Diez explained: “If the Naviator is being carried along by a tide, for example, it can break the surface, fly up into the air and reposition before diving again.” More, the lithium-battery powered drone “is getting better at lifting weights”, a very useful attribute. At the moment the Naviator has a payload of around 6kg to 7kg, but Prof Diez said that by next summer, a larger version of the air-water vehicle should be able to double that limit – and lose the data line that connects it to the control, becoming truly independent.

Finally, there are further applications that may help the nervous. Recent flooding in Texas resulted in a victim search in murky, swamp waters which come with their own issues. On seeing the Naviator, a delegation of doctors pointed out to Prof Diez that it could help rescue workers do a difficult job – and perhaps save them from alligators.

By Stevie Knight

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