Animals did not become terrestrial all at once. Moving from aquatic origins to life more based on land and in the air took a series of stages — some gradual, some metaphorical leaps. And, in a few cases, likely some actual leaps, a process we can see repeated in the unintentional biomimicry of a robotic aquatic glider that can, through chemical reactions, hop from pond to pond.
Developed by researchers at the Aerial Robotics Lab of the Imperial College of London, the robot is less a prototype and more a test platform for a theory of mobility. Could an alternative means of propulsion power a floating electric robot through the air and over obstacles into new bodies of water?
The result is a yes, landing with a resounding splash.
“One of the principal challenges in the development of such vehicles is that the transition from water to flight is a power-intensive process,” write the authors. “At a small scale, this is made more difficult by the limitations of electromechanical actuation and the unfavorable scaling of the physics involved.”
For military planners and designers, a novel propulsion system for uncrewed vehicles is worth a closer look. Moving a small sensor platform from pool to pool could make aquatic machines more viable in wetlands or littoral spaces.
The study, “Consecutive aquatic jump-gliding with water-reactive fuel,” was published Sept. 11, 2019, and it details the use of calcium carbide as a fuel that combines with a resource already abundant in aquatic environments: water. As designed, the robot can make 10 such jumps, with a cooling down period of 20 minutes between each hop. And, given the size of the vehicle, the hops are not short: the robot, which weighs about 5.6 ounces, can fly about 85 feet on each launch.
For scientists, such a robot offers a way to collect data from a series of small ponds or through a marshland, without worrying about having to go and physically retrieve the robot and place it into each adjacent body of water. Like all systems designed for remote and autonomous implications, it also has the potential to go where humans can’t.
How useful the propulsion system becomes is ultimately a function of what sensor platform its attached to. A drone designed to float in a shallow pool, devoting its electrical energy to powering cameras and radios, could get into position or exfiltrate through short bursts of a calcium carbide engine. Interdiction operations in swamps could be aided by robots, operating on the edges of where humans on foot can safely walk.
It is unclear, yet, if the novel research can lead to a viable tool, but the promise is exciting and worth further consideration.
Watch a video of the robot below: