It's a bird! It's a fish! It's ... the Naviator.
At the Office of Naval Research's annual Science and Technology Expo on Friday in Washington, D.C., a development team from Rutgers University demonstrated the unusual quadcopter, which can swim at depths of up to 10 meters, then seamlessly launch to the surface and soar into the air.
The drone, developed with sponsorship from the Office of Naval Research, shows promise as a tool for mine countermeasures and port security, to name a few possibilities.
There's also interest from the special operations community, said Dr. Marc Contarino, vice president of technology for the program. It carries a 360-degree waterproof camera, making it well-suited for security and bridge and ship inspections, among other missions.
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"Special ops have not told us exactly what they want. But we know for special ops, it's all about speed and not being detected," Contarino told Military.com. "So we're building our system to be as fast as possible."
While current prototypes are not much larger than a typical commercial quadcopter, Contarino said there are plans to build a six-foot-diameter model capable of carrying the 30-pound payload the Navy wants for its mine countermeasure mission. That UAV will be able to operate in waves of three-to-five feet and in 30-mile-per-hour winds, he said.
Developers have already put the Naviator through its paces in real-world conditions, launching the drone from the Delaware Memorial Bridge over the Delaware River and from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.
"Since we're a Navy sponsor, I tried to find the biggest boat I could to showcase it," Contarino said.
When a Phase Two development contract begins for the Naviator in 2018, Contarino said the team plans to expand its operational envelope, including work to develop a model that can operate at depths of up to 30 meters, and development of pressure-resistant features that could support much greater depths.
Whether the Naviator spends more time underwater or flying over it depends entirely on the mission.
"[It acts as if] air is a fluid, water is a fluid, and it doesn't care," Contarino said. " ... So we think the Navy really likes it because it does the air, the surface, and the underwater mission."