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Rutgers awarded $618,000 to develop drone

The United States Office of Naval Research awarded the University with a $618,000 grant to develop a drone that is able to travel through air and water.

The drone, which is under construction at the School of Engineering, is the brainchild of Francisco Diez, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Marco Maia, a PhD student in the School of Engineering. The patent on the drone is still pending, but Diez and Maia will be the patent-holders.

The drone, which received funding from the Navy, started out as an undergraduate research project in 2012. Maia started working on this drone in 2012 as his senior year project at Rutgers. The newer version that exists today was started in 2013.

“We discussed the idea of using dual propellers that would allow the drone to transit from air to water,” Diez said. “This was the key discovery that makes the transition really easy.”

The drone has many potential applications for the Navy.

“Our vehicle is the platform the Navy can use for rapid deployment and assessment of threats,” Diez said.

Mines pose as a big issue to the Navy, and the drone will hopefully help with this, he said.

“The drone could help inspect mines and carry out controlled explosions,” Maia said.

Then again, the Navy has not revealed the exact purpose the drone would be used for, Diez said.

“The Navy never tells you exactly what it plans to do,” Diez said, adding that detection of mines is a "complicated problem" that the drone might combat.

Rutgers is currently working to make the drone better, although Diez said the Navy would use it as it is right now if they gave it to them.

“We are trying to make the vehicle more smart and autonomous by adding sensors and improving its maneuverability by fixing some control issues,” Maia said.

Maia believes the big achievement in the project was proving that the drone could transition in and out of water.

“In the previous generation of the drone, Marco tested out the drone in a little pool in his home," Diez said. “That is my favorite experience of working on this project.”

Maia said he similarly took a small plastic pool, filled it up in a room inside his house and tried the drone there. It was the first time he got it work to work and work well.

The current vehicle is being tested in a pool and has gone through various interesting modification.

“The first iteration of the vehicle was made with 3-D printed parts," Maia said. “It was very cool since we got to make everything from scratch.”

Testing is currently going on at a pool, but if everything goes well, late testing should start by next summer, Maia said.

“We need to get more approvals, which may take more time,” Diez said. “We’re the ones who want to make the vehicle better. We are happy with the pool environment since we learn a lot every time we test it there.”

This kind of maneuvering with vehicles underwater has never been done before so they "are learning a lot," Diez said.

“We are building things from the scratch,” he said.

Parth Soni, a graduate student in the School of Engineering, is working on what Diez believes to be "completely new ground."

“I am trying to design and optimize the power systems so they can work well in both the air and water,” Soni said.

There are many potential applications of this drone, which are only speculated by Diez and Maia.

Once "cool gadgets" like Soni's are installed, the drone could be used to assess the impact of oil spills in oceans, Diez said.

“An interesting program with the Department of Defense could be to establish a secret drone-base underwater and use the drones for investigative purposes," he said.

Maia considers their vehicle to be special.

"(It) can go to specific points underwater, investigate, come out in the open and travel very quickly to another point far away,” Maia said.

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