Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Robotic hybrid can fly or submerge

Published on March 14, 2016 by   ·   No Comments


In early February, a number of drones (and their masters) gathered together in Dubai to compete in the annual “Drones for Good” competition.  The finalists were whittled down from over 1,000 entries from 165 countries and the overall winner was a fantastic underwater drone called Loon Copter, which flew away (sorry) with the top prize of one million dollars.

Loon Copter was accompanied to the competition by its makers, a team of students from Oakland’s Embedded Systems Research Laboratory led by Associate Professor Osamah Rawashdeh, PhD

Drones have got a bit of a bad rap lately, being increasingly associated with surveillance (and silly accidents) but they have huge potential, so the UAE Government has set up the Drones for Good competition to push people to find innovative ways of using this emerging technology.  There are two competitions running simultaneously, an international competition with a top prize of a million US dollars alongside a national award with a (rather smaller) first prize of a million UAE dirhams.

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Loon means something a bit different in the US; rather than a resident of bedlam, the aptly named Loon Copter references the aquatic bird, which in addition to its haunting call is known for its amazing underwater acrobatics.

The Loon Copter is unique in that it can ‘fly’ both above and below the water.  Above the water the Loon flies like any other quadcopter, but when it is lowered to the water it is able to propel itself on the surface of the water or just sit there quietly waiting for instructions.  When it is ready to submerge it pumps water into a buoyancy chamber that causes it to tip sideways and once the props are underwater they can be engaged and the drone ‘flies’ through the water. To ascend the reverse happens, the buoyancy chamber is emptied and the drone pops to the surface.

This aerial/submarine combo opens up all kinds of new possibilities and the ability to perform tasks that would be outside of the capabilities of an aerial drone or a sub surface vehicle.

The first Drones for Good was held last year and attracted 800 submissions from 57 different countries.  The 2015 winner was Gimball, a drone surrounded by a rotating cage, developed by Switzerland-based start-up Flyability.  The cage not only protects the drone from damage when it collides with obstacles, it also allows it to safely fly close to humans.  Flyability sees the Gimball being used in confined spaces and it could prove to be highly effective in rescue missions.


This year’s national finalists also included an underwater drone, the Reef Rover, which is an autonomous drone designed to swim above the seafloor continuously taking photos which will provide an effective mapping tool for marine biologists.  However, Buildrone, a proof of concept autonomous aerial drone, which is able to spot and mend leaking pipes without human intervention pipped that marine drone to the post,

The head of the Loon Copter team, Associate Professor Osamah Rawashdeh said, “It’s pretty much the first working demonstration of a vehicle of its kind.  This new technology has benefits that you couldn’t get from other individual vehicles in the past.  This vehicle can perform autonomous navigation, follow GPS waypoints or give you an overview like a drone would.  The Loon Copter is designed to be a rapidly deployable, low-cost vehicle that could replace both drones and underwater vehicles.”


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