UAS & Robotics

Soon drones will be able to fly and swim

NRL flying swimmer

NRL’s concept of Flimmer.

The Navy is putting a lot of stock into unmanned systems, from unmanned aerial vehicles to unmanned undersea vehicles. But what about unmanned aerial undersea vehicles?

They’re working on those, too. The Navy Research Laboratory has begun research on Flimmer, an unmanned system that can operate in the air and underwater. According to NRL, this combined capability is to “significantly improve tactical availability of UUVs in time critical situations”—that is, if it need to get to a spot underwater fast, it can be flown there, launched and then plunge into the deep. 

“The Navy’s looking for unique solutions for emplacing sensors for getting data in hard-to-reach locations and Flimmer is just one idea out of many that holds promise,” Dr. Daniel Edwards, principal investigator for the Flimmer project, said in a video produced by NRL. “Birds splash down and swim for fish, so there’s precedent in nature. We’re just trying to adapt it for UAV/UUV uses.”

Boeing also is getting into the fly/swim game, having recently received a patent from the U.S. patent office for a “rapid deployment air and water vehicle,” according to Business Insider.

Boeing’s concept is to have a craft will be carried aloft by a host craft and then deployed (Flimmer can be catapult-launched or dropped from a plane). Much like rocket boosters for spacecraft that separate once spent, the device’s wings and propellers would then separate from the fuselage upon impact with water, as to limit dead weight. 

Such concepts could have wide-ranging uses, from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to lethal strike capabilities, to simple information gathering. “Flimmer would be delivering sensors for measuring either environmental parameters, looking for chemicals in the water…Flimmer could look for oil spills and try to find the source of, say, the Gulf coast leak,” Edwards said. 

NRL is trying to work out various kinks associated with Flimmer’s design. “We’re trying to solve several problems, including the configuration design – where do we put fins for underwater propulsion in order to not to mess up the aerodynamics.” Edwards said. “And underwater, figuring out where to put the wings so we don’t mess up the hydrodynamics.” Because air and water each has specific requirements, combining the two without compromising the other will be a challenge, especially if the vehicle is to be reused—Boeing’s design, for instance, would seem to solve the problem of what to do about avionics features by getting rid of them in the water, but it also seems to be for vehicles that are on a one-way mission.

The Flimmer program is also another method for long-range UUV deployment as opposed to being limited to shore or ship.               

The military has also demonstrated concepts on the other side of the spectrum – water to air. NRL has launched a drone from a submarine, for example. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s upward falling payload program seeks to place payloads of varying purpose – waterborne and airborne cameras, decoys, networked nodes, beacons, jammers and obscurants – throughout the sea floor that can be called up when needed.


About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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