A diving robot that can fly


Last month, the whole world was shocked when five über-rich explorers died at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean near the grave of the “unsinkable ship”. Disturbingly, during that same week, hundreds of wars were ravaged Refugees drown in the Mediterranean with little news of their plight. The irony of machines versus nature illustrates how small humanity is in the universe, and that every soul, rich or poor, is precious. It is with this attitude that many roboticists have tackled some of the galaxy’s toughest problems from space exploration to desert mining to oceanography to search & rescue.

Following the news of the Titan submarine explosion, I reached out Professor F. Javier Diez of Rutgers University for comments on rescue missions and the role of robots. Aerospace academics are also entrepreneurs of new drone technology companies that can fly and swim autonomously on the same mission. As he explains, his approach can save time and money in confirming the same unfortunate answer, “I think we can get down to 12,000. Does not matter. So now imagine sending a 20 pound[robot]to 12,000 feet. You can do this in a few hours. You just throw it overboard, or you fly, you know you don’t have to carry cranes, giant ships, and all this ridiculously expensive equipment just to get your first look. Dr. sentiment Diez was validated during US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger’s first press conference when he warned the media about the enormous logistical effort in moving such large equipment to a remote and hostile area of ​​the world. Diez continued, “We could be there in a few hours. So of course, you know there’s more to it than that. But I’m just saying that in the long term I can see how very small robots like ours for search and rescue can become very large. We’re doing some work. We actually submitted several proposals with the submarine community. I think it has huge applications because again, this 20 pound[drone]is something you can deploy from anywhere, anytime.”

In breaking down his invention, the drone CEO describes an epiphany that happened in his lab previous year by overcoming the conventional wisdom that unmanned systems operating in two modalities (sea and air) require two separate propulsion systems. He further noted that the two propulsion systems were very inefficient in terms of energy burn and functionality. “And this I think is a mental barrier for a lot of people, and it still is when they see what we put into it.” He explains how he first had to overcome so many industry naysayers, “I brought this up to a few people at NASA, and everyone said, this is not going to work. And then when you look at what’s behind the propeller design and the motor design, you realize that we can’t live on the edge. We designed the propellers for very specific conditions, namely air.” However, the innovator challenged the aerospace community’s status quo by asking, “Can you design propellers and motors for water? And it turns out you can.” He deconstructed his laboratory research, “So if you look at the curve for air, and you look at the current for water, the two intersect, and if you do it right, you can be efficient in both places. So it was a breakthrough for me to be able to demonstrate. And we really showed that you can design efficient propellers both in the air and underwater.”

After sharing his insights on the design, he then conveyed to me that flight control programming was the next hurdle to overcome. “The next challenge is transition. So we worked really hard from the start of that transition out of the water. We really have patent this and that is really the heart of our technology. I call it dual plane propulsion. You have 2 propellers on top and two propellers on the bottom. So when you’re on the surface, the bottom is in the water and the top is in the air. So the bottom is like when you have a baby and you’re swimming in drag. Babies are not very good swimmers, but if you put your hand on their belly they suddenly become great swimmers. So think of it as a bottom propeller. When the vehicle is on the surface, the lower propeller keeps it very stable. So now you have that stability, the top (propeller) can work together to get (the drone) out of the water. So that’s how we complete the continuous transition. You can go in and out 100 times,” boasted the Professor.

Diez’s company SubUAS is not a theoretical concept, but an actual product currently in use by the US military, and looking to expand into the commercial market. “So we are one hundred percent with the Defense Department. They are very supportive of technological developments.” He is now eager to expand from a Naval Research funded project to new placements in the cities and energy sectors. “We have carried out various types of inspections related to the mast. Now, we have the Department of Transportation (Florida) interested in this technology,” said the startup founder. “What I’ve realized over the last year is that defense has its own pace. You can’t really push it. There is a dedicated group now in defense cheering us on, but it will take a few years,” he joked. Optimistically, he envisions soon turning a profit by opening up the platform to commercial applications. “Now we are starting to see the fruit of that (effort). I can tell you that we have been approved in Europe to carry out inspections of offshore wind turbines later this summer. However, he was excited about the bridge inspection, “We have more than half a million bridges in the US. And at least 50,000 to 200,000 have serious problems with them. I mean, we don’t do enough checks. So have a vehicle like that Navigator who can see the underwater part of the bridge is huge.”

He has also been approached by several companies in the energy industry. “And then there are a lot of interesting assets within oil and gas, but we found this. It’s almost like a discovery phase because no one has ever had the ability to do air and sea. He described that there are many robots such as ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) that inspect rigs at sea level and aerial drones that view from the air, but none focus on the splash zone (where the two meet) because they never had dual modality before. . He further illustrates the value proposition of this particular use case, “Nothing comes close to the surface. So they said that it’s a very big app for us. Longer term, Diez envisions replacing the tethered ROV altogether because the system is easier (and cheaper) to implement.

Currently, the SubUAS business model is inspection based, but over time it will center on data collection as they are the only waterproof aerial drones on the market that can swim. “We go to the bridge inspectors, and we work with them to simplify their lives, and ultimately reduce the diver’s risk. So they know what we’re doing is making their lives easier.” However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as “it’s not about the hardware or the sensor, it’s about the data you collect. We think cloud services are huge because they let you sort and analyze them anywhere.” He concluded by sharing that the next model will leverage a lot of artificial intelligence in interpreting conditions and independently planning missions accordingly. Perhaps soon, virtual explorers too will be able to view the wreck from the comfort (and safety) of their couches.

Oliver Mitchell is a Founding Partner of Autonomy Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm focused on early-stage investments in robotics

Oliver Mitchell is a Founding Partner of Autonomy Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm focused on early-stage investments in robotics


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