The ‘dual robot’ drone, an amphibious, ‘shape-shifting’ drone called MEDUSA (Multi-Environment Dual robot for Underwater Sample Acquisition) has been developed that is able to fly through the air and land on water in order to quickly collect samples for scientific studies.
It has a pod tethered to it that can be deployed underwater remotely in hard-to-reach aquatic environments.
Engineers at Imperial College London use drones to measure lake water for signs of microorganisms and algal blooms, which can threaten human health.
It is also expected to be used to monitor climate clues like temperature changes in Arctic seas in the future.
Professor Mirko Kovac from Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics said: ‘We have much to learn from the Earth’s water: by monitoring ecological parameters we can identify trends and understand the factors affecting water quality and the health of the ecosystem in a changing climate. MEDUSA’s unique ability to reach difficult places and collect aquatic images, samples, and metrics will be invaluable for ecology and aquatic research and could support our understanding of local climate in difficult-to-access environments like the Arctic.’
The researchers wanted to develop a monitoring drone that could quickly get to hard-to-reach aquatic environments and test water samples.
The drone has six remotely controlled ‘multirotors’ – individual lift-generating blades that rotate around a central vertical mast like helicopter blades.
These enable it to travel long distances with heavy cargo, fly over obstacles, and glide through challenging terrain.
Once it has flown to its destination, the drone releases its tethered underwater pod.
The pod has a camera and sensors attached and can be lowered to depths of up to ten meters.
The camera feeds back live video, while the sensors provide data in real-time.
It was tested in Empa federal laboratories and on Lake Zurich with researchers from and aquatic research institute Eawag in Switzerland.
‘MEDUSA is unique in its dual robot design, with a flight component that reaches difficult-to-access areas and a diving component that monitors water quality,’ said Professor Kovac.
‘Our drone considerably simplifies robotic underwater monitoring by performing challenging tasks which would otherwise require boats.’
The drone could also help monitor and maintain offshore infrastructure like underwater energy pipelines and floating wind turbines.
The researchers next want to develop ‘soft’ drones that can change their body shape so they can fly, travel across the water surface, and also dive underneath.