How these drones survey underwater — without actually going underwater

How do you create a system where drones survey underwater, without actually sending a drone underwater? There are certainly waterproof drones that function more like submarines, often resembling manta rays that glide underwater through the controller of a standard RC transmitter.

But the team at the University of Florida, in partnership with a private software company called Aurigo, has built a solution where drones survey underwater while still functioning as a stereotypical drone, flying through the air.

It’s what some might consider a revolutionary system for underwater surveying, mapping, and inspection, as it might unlock real-world applications that are not otherwise currently commercially available. They’re calling it “Bathydrone.”

Bathydrone Aurigo University of Florida drones survey underwater
Photo courtesy of Aurigo.

How does Bathydrone work to survey underwater?

With the Bathydrone system, a drone drags a small vessel on the water’s surface. That vessel is equipped with a commercially-available, off-the-shelf sonar unit mounted on its bottom.

And it’s that sonar unit that has down-scan, side-scan, and chirp capabilities, making it possible to log data onboard the console, which is located inside the hull. After the drone’s flight and the sonar unit is retrieved, data can then be uploaded post-mission from the console.

In short, the drone does the driving, and a completely different piece of technology does the data-gathering, which is a relatively unique model amidst the myriad of drone applications.

And many experts believe this method where drones survey underwater by dragging sonar units in the water is a huge improvement of the current process for many reasons, including being potentially cheaper, safer and more eco-friendly.

“The current process to gather data for new underwater construction or the inspection of existing assets such as bridges, docks, and levees consists of manual surveying from divers or survey sensors mounted to a boat,” according to a statement from Aurigo. “With the new, safer, and more efficient Bathydrone system, a drone drags a small vessel on the water’s surface, eliminating the need for manual surveying.”

Here are some features and benefits of Bathydrone in a nutshell:

  • Fully battery-operated: That means it requires no fuel and emits less noise, which is better for the environment.
  • Lightweight and easily transportable: It does not even require a dock or boat ramp to get in the water, so it could be deployed in more places.
  • Flexible to environment: It’s able to be deployed in a wide variety of water systems, including shallow water and rivers with strong currents.
  • Powerful: It’s able to survey a large area on a single charge.

See it in action here:

What are the use cases of drones that survey underwater?

Any scenario where you’d have to survey and map underwater counts as a use case. That might include mapping and inspection critical infrastructure, like docks, levees and bridges. In the U.S., there are more than 617,000 bridges, and more than half are underwater. And because the average age of a bridge in the U.S. is about 44 years old, regular maintenance inspections are crucial.

But traditional methods are challenging. By some estimates, the combined cost of the collective backlog for inspections and maintenance is pegged at $125 billion nationwide. By cutting back on the need for manual inspection using divers (which is also potentially risky and error prone), the Bathydrone solution could be the future.

Similar products have tried to achieve what Bathydrone promises, albeit in a different manner. For example, Chinese drone manufacturer PowerVision built an underwater drone called PowerRay that allows you to livestream what the drone sees directly through your smartphone or tablet and can go as deep as about 100 feet underwater (and can detect objects up to about 230 feet below the surface). Though, without sonar (among other high tech) that more consumer-oriented drone is not nearly as advanced as something like what the Bathydrone promises to be.

Other similar competitors to the PowerRay include the Gladius Mini, which again, can see underwater but is far from as powerful as the Bathydrone. The Gladius Mini goes for about $1,000 (the regular price is $1,199 but it’s often on sale).

The target Bathydrone customers include state departments of transportation, ports and marine authorities, federal, defense, and local government agencies who need to build and maintain assets that cross water.

Drone inside image
Photo courtesy of Aurigo.

How did Bathydrone come about?

Bathydrone is built by two entities working together. On the private side, there’s Aurigo Software, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas, but also has offices in Canada and India. Aurigo builds cloud-based software based on proprietary artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that’s designed for capital infrastructure and private owners to help build with quality, and maintain assets. It claims to have more than 300 customers, which represent a combined 40,000 projects across North America with more than $300 billion of capital programs under management.

Aurigo is already fairly well-regarded for its Aurigo’s Masterworks Cloud Platform, which helps properly store and categorize project data and route any inspections or other results for approval or further action. That tech will, unsurprisingly, be integrated into Bathydrone.

And on the public side, there’s the University of Florida, a major, public, comprehensive, land-grant, research university (and the oldest in the state). The university’s  Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is spearheading the project.

Aurigo’s CEO, Balaji Sreenivasan, is actually a graduate of the university, having completed his masters at UF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 1999. Throw in the fact that Florida is a perfect geographic fit given its proximity to many bodies of water, and the existing drone research done by Dr. Peter Ifju (who is working on the Bathydrone project), and the partnership between Aurigo and the University of Florida is a pretty natural fit.

And as far as the name itself, and how the moniker ‘Bathydrone’ came about? Bathydrone is a combination of two words: Drone and Bathymetry, which is the science of underwater surveying and mapping.

Screenshot 2023 06 14 at 7.43.46 PM

What’s next for Bathydrone?

If you want one now, good luck. The public can’t get their hands on one yet. While the product itself is already fully-deployable in its current state — which means it’s capable of being programmed to run automatically, collect data, and render the findings in real time for the engineers running the project — it’s not even in what’s considered beta testing yet.

But over the next year to 18 months, Aurigo will work closely with the University of Florida’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering’s staff and students in anticipation of bringing this system where drones survey underwater to the commercial infrastructure market.

The next step is to test the system under more real-world scenarios as possible, all the while making fine adjustments to the vessel and drone components. For now, all testing is being conducted by Aurigo and their research partners at University of Florida facilities in Gainesville and the surrounding area.

And by early 2024, Bathydrone should be in official beta testing mode. Once that happens, Aurigo customers (which is set to include the Department of Transportation and other federal agencies and port authorities who currently use Aurigo Masterworks to plan and manage their projects) will participate in field testing on sites they oversee.

While the company wouldn’t say how much it’ll likely cost once the product is finally to market — and perhaps it’s even too soon for them to say what it’s worth — a spokesperson for the Bathydrone product said that as of now, agencies spend between $1,500 – $5,000 to inspect bridges today, and anywhere from $25,000 – $45,000 for more complex assets that are over water.

“While the cost of the Bathydrone will be significantly lower for a much more efficient and accurate inspection and survey process, this is also about increasing safety on the job site and not putting human lives at risk,” a spokesperson said.

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