Innovative Navy-funded drone is master of the air and water

A propeller-driven drone that can fly both in the air and underwater is in development at Rutgers University— a unique vehicle that caught the eye of the U.S. Navy and could be used in search-and-rescue operations and underwater inspections.

The amphibious drone can emerge from the water and then fly through the air, and vice versa, meaning that operators could dispatch it from dry land, send it into water to take a look around, and then bring it back.

F. Javier Diaz, a Rutgers University professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, explained that the breakthrough in the project’s development came when they decided to give the drone two sets of propellers, one above the other. That helps with the tricky transition from the water to air and back again. While one set of propellers struggles at the air-surface interface, the other set, either all the way in the air or water, works more effectively.

“I think what really impresses people, is how easily it gets out of the water,” Diaz told “That’s really where the magic occurs.”

The concept behind the drone is that it could, for example, be launched from shore to inspect underwater portions of a bridge, an oil platform, or a car sunk in a lake or river. This concept promises to be faster that the traditional method of sending a diver out to do an inspection, Diaz said.

The device garnered the interest of the Office of Naval Research, which granted the project over half a million dollars last year. “I came to them, showed them the video,” Diaz recounted. “And they were like, ‘We’ve only seen this in movies. We want it.’”

Currently, the drone needs a communications tether, because of the difficulties of talking with the drone underwater— an especially difficult task in a pool, where the walls cause signals to bounce.


But Diaz said that their goal is for the drone— which they call the Naviator— to actually be autonomous. That means it wouldn’t need to be actively flown, but could be sent on a mission of exploration without a tether.

“We hope to have this working by the end of the summer, where we can do this autonomous mission,” Diaz said. “You let the vehicle do its thing.”

The concept has evolved through five generations, and right now Diaz said that they have three prototypes. Those include two small ones, but also a larger one that measures about 4.5 feet across and is “more serious,” Diaz said.

In fact, that larger version will be debuted in an episode of a National Geographic show called “Machine Impossible,” Diaz said, which casts the large drone in a Jaws-like scene.

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