Commercial drone technology has focussed mainly on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) in recent years. With Robor Electronics I set out to see what could happen if we didn't limit ourselves to the air. The result was a platform which could combine the strengths of remotely operated and (semi-)automatic surface vessels, airborne drones, and submersibles to quickly and easily get an eye under water.
Such a technology might open up a wealth of applications, and initial market research pointed out a broad range of prospects. Think of first responders that require a quick overview of an underwater emergency situation, inspections and maintenance of underwater infrastructure and offshore assets, various types of marine research, or site spotting for recreational diving. On top of that, completely new fields might emerge from making the deep blue more accessible, like it happened with the "democratisation of the skies" resulting from the proliferation of UAV's. To cater to as much applications as possible means the system must be flexible enough to be fitted to different scenarios.
Instead of thinking of the drone platform as a stand-alone vehicle, the functionalities are dispersed over separate subsystems forming a sub/super-marine hybrid. It combines a launch/support vehicle that stays above water with a submersible "probe", connected by a tether. This offers several advantages; The tether eliminates the limitations of wireless communication underwater without the limitations of running it all the way to the land. Having the complete system fly to its target means it can deploy at speeds up to 80km/h. That's especially important in time-critical scenarios such as emergency response, a market in which Robor was already establishing itself by providing IR-detection systems for firefighters, ambulance and rescue brigade services. The submersible can also make use of the battery, communication channels and sensor data from the launch vehicle.
Since UAV's and unmanned boats are much more widely available, this functionality can be adopted from off the shelf vehicles, such as DJI's developer platform Matrice 100. This means the sub could become much smaller and simpler, becoming in a sense simply a mobile appendage of the launch vehicle. Not only does this remove several practical issues, it also significantly cuts development- and production costs. Even when including the cost of the launch vehicle, this makes the platform accessible to more professional applications, and even personal use for hobbies like underwater photography, scuba diving and fishing.
To cater to a range of scenarios, the sub must be adaptable to different modes of autonomy, contain auxiliary connections to carry functional modules, and be able to work from different types of UAV's, autonomous boats or launch from a quay or ship. Since the sub relies heavily on its launch vehicle, this variety offers a great deal of complexity to the system design. Much thought had to be put into communication between system components, weight distribution and balance, and coordination.
The design of the system considers different interaction scenarios; ranging from fully manual operation for experts to fully autonomous operation.
Read more about some of the parts that I designed for the platform.