I drove a drone less than a mile from an international airport recently, and I don’t feel guilty at all.
That’s because the drone I piloted had zero chance of impacting an aircraft. In fact, it can’t fly at all — except underwater. There, in its native element, it flew, in a sense.
Or swam, like a fish in water.
I’ve been piloting my DJI (air) drone for the better part of a year now, and enjoying it, although I have less time than I would like to really develop superior flying skills. Or to impress my teenage kid. But the first time I piloted an undersea drone was at CES 2019.
Until I got a test version of the Gladius Mini.
There’s something magical about driving a drone places you can’t go, whether it’s in the air or under the water. But given that flying drones have been increasingly restricted due to security concerns, it’s fun to try an undersea drone as well.
The Mini is a five-thruster water drone about the size of a small backpack with near-infinite maneuverability in three dimensions and a 165-foot tether. (Radio waves like WiFi don’t work underwater, so you need a wired connection to maintain control and get 4K video of your journey.)
Optionally, you can get a 330-foot or 660-foot tether if you want to go really nuts, but the submersible drone itself is rated at 330 feet of depth.
Just like any other drone, it connects to your phone or tablet, and you control it via an app and a supplied physical remote controller — something like a PlayStation or Xbox controller.
The drone is primarily interesting for my purposes for hobbyist fun.
But it’s professional and capable enough for marina usage like checking out boat hulls without getting wet as well as inspection of underwater infrastructure likes dams and pipelines, according to Chasing Innovation, the company behind the Gladius.
“Many people think of underwater drones as primarily for exploring tropical waters,” Gladius general manager Sage Raterman told me via email. “Like aerial drones, most of the uses are commercial, for inspecting boat hulls, underwater infrastructure, fish farming, industrial tanks and many other uses where daily operations and maintenance under the water are economically important.”
I tried the drone in a local lake.
Unfortunately, this was during a cold snap and the lake was frozen, so the test was somewhat abbreviated, but I can say that the Gladius works as a mini ice-breaker as well as an undersea drone. And that it was easy to control, even under the ice. Fortunately, the drone comes equipped with a bright light so you can see where you’re going, even in darker depths.
One great thing: a water drone is much more forgiving than a flying drone.
Almost every drone flyer I’ve met has cracked up his or her drone at least once, and most have done it a few times. Under water, however, if you do nothing, nothing happens, which gives you some margin of safety. The Gladius has depth control and will stay generally where you want it to be, unless you’re in super-strong ocean currents or a river.
Worst-case scenario, you have the tether which enables you to simply reel the drone in like a fish on a line.
There are some challenges for hobbyists. The sub needs to be charged, of course. So does the remote controller. And so does the base station, making for three separate pieces of hardware that all need charging.
In other words, you’ll need to plan ahead for your undersea droning experiences: this isn’t something you’ll be doing on the spur of the moment.
Add the tether cord itself, and there are a lot of pieces here, which makes everything more complicated, equipment-wise, than air droning. With my flying drone, I can charge one thing, connect it to my phone, and be up and flying instantly.
That said, it all fits neatly into a backpack, so it’s portable.
And because weight is not a problem — the drone is supported by water and doesn’t have to expend constant energy simply to stay in “flight,” the batter lasts for a very, very comfortable four hours or more.
Ultimately from a personal perspective it’s fun to explore areas that without scuba gear, you’ll never be able to see. And, of course, at depths like 330 feet, you can’t even scuba.
From a professional standpoint, however, this is potentially an interesting opportunity to get a fairly capable research or utility sub for less than $1500.
“Aerial drones started with very specific commercial applications, like military UAVs,” Raterman says. “However, with the advancement of mobile and wireless technologies, these were soon made accessible to the average consumer and business owner at a much lower cost and smaller form factor. We think this same trend is happening with underwater drones.”
This, plus educational use, might be the niche that fits best for an undersea drone. Along with, of course, true hobbyists who want to explore the waters wherever they go.
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