Are underwater drones really as versatile as their aerial counterparts? Operating in the world’s oceans and lakes pose special challenges for all remotely piloted vehicles. At lower depths, navigation by GPS, radar and Wi-Fi is difficult to sustain. Without a stronger signal, underwater drones frequently lose contact with their surface ship – and sink.
Advanced Navigation, a pioneer in underwater robotics, may have solved this problem. The Company’s battery-powered “Hydrus” drone can operate autonomously at depths of 3,000 meters for 8 hours, without the need for remote navigation. But the vessel can also collect and send data to a surface vessel for continuous onboard processing. That makes it superior to just about every other underwater drone currently available on the market.
Hydrus comes equipped with a cinema-grade 4K 60fps camera combined with an AI engine to analyze image quality and adjust camera lighting as the vehicle maneuvers. Camera images can be stitched together to create 3-D photogrammetry maps of underwater conditions – from distressed coral reefs to submerged auto wreckage. It’s also ideal for inspecting ship hulls and propellers, boat docks, hydroelectric dams and oil pipelines.
But unlike other underwater drones, including mini-subs, the Hydrus is especially user-friendly – so user friendly that even drone hobbyists might purchase one. Hydrus is literally operational “right out of the box,” without the need for in-depth user knowledge or training. It’s also lightweight (6.7 kg, or roughly15 pounds) and compact enough to be transported in a backpack – or as carry-on luggage. At sea, a single person might program the Hydrus in an hour, then simply drop it overboard to begin conducting a host of underwater missions. Yes, it’s really that simple.
Like other drone submersibles, the Hydrus also has enormous cost-saving potential. Conventional methods for underwater exploration typically require a large vessel fitted with lifting equipment, qualified crews and professional divers, with attendant health and safety protocols. As a result, underwater data capture is expensive, time consuming and in the end, not always 100% effective. At lower depths, extreme water pressure makes the use of divers dangerous and prohibitive. A Hydrus can perform the same missions, at much lower depths, and far more quickly.
Drone hobbyists that can afford a Hydrus might well purchase one to shoot an entertaining aquatic video or search for sunken treasure But lone wolf scientists and explorers might also view the Hydrus as a low-cost alternative to a larger and less maneuverable underwater drone. Company officials are boldly touting their vehicle’s use for conservation research. “Hydrus has the potential to discover why some of the ocean’s greatest climate change events are occurring. This includes CO2 absorption, reef bleaching, new diseases, loss of sea life and biodiversity, coastal erosion, and fishery decline amongst others. Being able to regularly gather high resolution data will help us measure the severity of these devastating events. We can then respond proactively, constructively and decisively,” the company’s brochure declares.
Advanced Navigation is not completely alone. Other companies, including Canada-based Deep Trekker, are pioneering similar user-friendly systems. Deep Trekker offers three autonomous drone models that are heavier than the Hydrus and with depth ranges closer to 600 meters. A Norwegian firm, BlueEye Robotics, now offers a suite of compact remote observation vehicles (ROVs) for underwater exploration. Some of its ROVs do have one potential advantage over the Hydrus: they come equipped with grippers to grasp and secure potential items of interest. But they also require a tether cable and a remote operator – which limits their depth range.