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Tue May 11 2021

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Gannet drone collects water samples

19 Dec 16 Engineers have developed a prototype drone that dives into water like a gannet to collect water samples.

The prototype AquaMAV robot
The prototype AquaMAV robot

A team from Imperial College London has taken inspiration from the diving ability of gannets for their prototype AquaMAV robot. The AquaMAV is designed to collect water samples in oceans and reservoirs. To leap back out of the water, flying fish are the inspiration.

Environmental researchers generally have to use boats to collect water samples manually. AquaMAV is designed to be rapid, efficient, and more cost effective than this method. It can also carry out tests in dangerous situations such as in disaster zones or from locations currently inaccessible to people, such as deep under the ocean.

One of the current drawbacks for small scale flying robots is that they generally lack sufficient power to make the transition from water to the air. The AquaMAV uses carbon dioxide, which is stored internally, to propel itself out of the water. In the air, retractable wings are deployed to help it glide, much in the same way that fins help flying fish.

The drone weighs just 200 grams and can currently achieve speeds of around 30 miles per hour from a starting point beneath the water. It can make the aerial leap even from rough water. 

The research, part funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, is published in the journal Interface Focus1.

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Rob Siddall, lead author and postgraduate from Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, added: “We are really excited by our AquaMAV prototype. We believe we may have overcome the power density problem which makes launching out of the water so challenging for small drones. Nature often has an elegant way of solving engineering challenges. By examining the diving qualities of gannets and the leaping behaviour of flying fish, we can make an aerial drone that needs less on board control, making it more robust and more affordable to manufacture.”

Dr Mirko Kovac, the director of the Aerial Robotics Lab in Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, said: “During an emergency scenario such as a major oil leak an AquaMav could fly and dive into isolated patch of water, where it could collect samples or loiter  and record environmental data. The vehicle could then perform a short take-off and return to its launch site to submit samples for analysis. This would enable a fast, targeted response that could not be matched by the current methods.”

The researchers are now looking to collaborate with oceanographers and water authorities to take testing to the next stage. An additional propulsion system is also under development to make the AquaMAV fully aquatic, capable of long periods of submarine operation. 

1. Wind and water tunnel testing of a morphing aquatic micro air vehicle, Royal Society Interface Focus.

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