Australian robotics company Advanced Navigation is transforming the world of underwater drone technology.
The craft is a gleaming projection of smooth white plastic about the size of a vacuum cleaner. For the Hydrus, however, dust is not a concern. This new creation from Australian artificial intelligence firm Advanced Navigation is designed for the oceanic depths.
Fully autonomous, programmable from out of the box, and able to venture 3000m below sea level, the Hydrus is designed to transform what researchers and industry can do at sea.
“The drone revolution that we saw over the last 10 or 15 years on land — we wanted to take that same thing and do it under water,” Xavier Orr, Advanced Navigation’s CEO, tells create.
Kitted out with advanced sonar, navigation and communications systems, the Hydrus is able to undock itself from its resident home base and navigate autonomously, avoiding obstacles and adjusting missions on the fly. The technology requires no specific knowledge or training to use and has a web interface that makes it simple to plan and execute underwater missions in three dimensions.
Equipped with a cinema-grade 4K 60 fps camera and an artificial intelligence engine, it can analyse image quality and adjust lighting in real time as it operates. It is even compact and lightweight enough to be launched by a solo operator; Advanced Navigation boasts that it can be taken on to a plane as carry-on luggage.
Inspiration for the drone came from the company’s work with clients using underwater vehicles. “We’ve been selling our sonar and navigation equipment to other underwater vehicles and they’ll install that on their vehicles and go and operate missions,” Orr says. “And these vehicles will be huge — bigger than the size of [a] table, and it’s a mix-and-match of parts off the shelf. So people will get a whole heap of bits and bobs and put it together on a vehicle.
“And they’re very difficult to use. They need huge ships, large crews; it’s a very expensive game to be putting those out and actually operating them.”
Orr decided there had to be a better way to do it. “We wanted to take all of that technology that’s usually the size of a table and pack it into a tiny little vehicle that could be hand-deployed and deployed from anywhere and by anyone,” he says. The resulting drone has a broad variety of uses. “Surveying wind farms, offshore wind farms,” Orr offers as an example. “Another one is there’s a company trying to do underwater mine detection and classification — trying to identify if there are mines under water so that they can clear them and get rid of them.”
The accessibility of the technology might be why it can be adapted to so many situations: it can be operated via a web browser on a laptop, which connects to the Hydrus’s wi-fi . “Then you can draw on the map where you want it to go, what depth you want it to go to. If you want it to look for certain things, follow a diver, it’s got a whole range of pre-programmed things you can make it do,” Orr says.
Orr compares it to using Google Earth or Google Maps. “Without any training or any knowledge at all, most people would be able to create a track and it would be able to just go,” he says. “They throw it in the water, it goes and completes that and comes back.”
Developing the drone involved some notable challenges. “Packing that technology into such a small size — there are some significant challenges with that,” Orr says. “The way we actually build the vehicle is completely different to the way any underwater vehicles are built right now. There are actually no air cavities. Right now, most underwater vehicles have a pressure vessel and there’s air and electronics contained in there. “We went with a different methodology where there’s no air. Instead it’s plastic-moulded in and around everything — which allows us to ensure the whole system is pressure tolerant. By doing that, it allows you to really shrink the size dramatically.”
Advanced Navigation Mechanical Engineer Nikki Staltari says that adapting to an underwater environment required a significant change in her thinking. Many solutions that would make sense out of the water had to be completely reimagined for an aquatic environment due to the high levels of water pressure and lack of atmosphere. “That was one of the biggest pivots I had to do for designing, in a mechanical sense,” she says. “All of your material choices, air bubbles, manufacturing techniques, buoyancy — everything is tested in your mechanical toolbox in your head.
“You can’t rely on some materials that you usually go to, because they’ll corrode, or they won’t satisfy the pressure requirements that the Hydrus will be subjected to. We even have to consider some materials with specific acoustic profiles, because that’s how the vehicle positions itself.”
The craft’s size also shaped the team’s approach. “You can’t use what the normal subsea industry would use — you have to pick and choose what properties they use and apply it in a different miniaturised way in Hydrus,” Staltari says. “It really pushes you to think outside the box for a lot of things. Because we don’t have that luxury of space, you have to get really creative, and use up every inch of the Hydrus in a really clever way.”
One particular innovation that Orr points to is the Hydrus’s thrusters — the tiny propellers that move it through the water. “Everything that we looked at that was on the market that we could find, it just wasn’t really suitable,” he explains. “They’d all get jammed; they couldn’t handle continuous salt water. You had bits of debris come in and that would jam them up or sand would get into them. So we decided after about a year of trying to make things work off the shelf or from various suppliers that we would actually design our own thruster.”
“We tested something that we thought was a bit of a crazy idea and we managed to get it to work,” says Staltari. “The hub-less propeller means that it’s safe for wildlife, or safe for sea life.”