This Weird Drone Feeds on Hurricanes
Wave-powered robot boat gets faster in bad weather
This story originally appeared on Aug. 14, 2013.
Most boats need to avoid storms. But a new line of swimming drones coming out of a California start-up actually works better as the waves get higher.
The Wave Glider, designed by Liquid Robotics, is powered by water. More specifically, by water’s motion. The basic Wave Glider design features a 175-pound undersea “float” and a barge-like surface “glider” connected by a rigid, hinged umbilical.
The differential motion between the flat and the glider as waves pulse around it pushes the vehicle forward. Not very quickly, granted — just one or two miles per hour, on average. But the wave-based propulsion requires no batteries, no engine, no fuel and emits no waste.
In other words, the Wave Glider can sail essentially forever in almost any conditions. Storms mean more powerful waves, which increase the differential motion and therefore the robot’s speed. “They like the weather,” company rep Don Jagoe said at the annual Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.
Wave Glider could do a lot of things, according to Jagoe. It could monitor pollution and Arctic ice melt, sniff out drug smugglers or help the Navy spot seaborne insurgents or enemy submarines.
Solar panels on the glider power the ‘bot’s radio, with which it stays in touch with its operators. Any added equipment could also be solar-powered.
Liquid Robotics has built several Wave Gliders and deployed them on more than 100 missions. They range from the six-foot SV2 to the 10-foot SV3. A 16-foot model is in development, along with a five-ton hybrid version that also carries a small diesel generator. “They scale pretty well,” Jagoe said.
Last year Liquid Robotics sent four Wave Gliders sailing across the Pacific—two each headed for Australia and Japan from the U.S. for a combined 30,000 miles of travel. Both Australia-bound ‘bots reached the continent nation, one of them happily passing through a storm with 60-foot waves, doubling its speed as the weather intensified.
One of the Japan-bound ‘bots was hit by something—possibly a ship—and sank. The other is still plodding across the ocean, slowly accumulating barnacles. Any other boat would run out of fuel, but it’s the barnacles that pose the biggest threat to the Wave Glider.
Wave power is “free, unlimited and renewable,” Jagoe said. And it could be the future of seaborne propulsion, as long as you’re not in a hurry.