Can communication-linked UAVs become AUVs’ BFFs?


Researchers in Japan are testing whether the deployment of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) for research can be significantly enhanced by pairing them with communication-linked UAVs hovering overhead to relay data to human monitors on the ground.

Experts at the University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science have conducted tests using aerial drones to track submerged AUVs as they operate, and replacing the floating vessels that usually act as their base stations collecting or relaying information feeds. Those surface level craft tend to move slowly in monitoring the position and data collection of submarine drones, and are at times swept astray by waves or other sea disturbances. As a possible option to those, the researchers tried using hovering UAVs as aerial trackers, and found the craft to be efficient, fast, and stable communication options.

In their study published last month, the scientists detailed the use of drones to follow AUVs as they gather information for ocean and seafloor research. Due to the weakened transmission power and shorter travel distances of radio signals underwater, accompaniment of a second craft in relative proximity is necessary to maintain a AUV’s absolute position, and enable real-time collection and relaying of the data it sends.

The recent tests determined that UAVs hovering above the submarines provide similar communications capacities as surface-floating vessels, but with far greater speed, stability, and agility capacities.

“Because sea-surface vehicles cannot efficiently achieve high-speed observations, we examined whether UAVs could be used as a base station for underwater communication with an AUV,” explains lead author Yusuke Yokota. “UAVs can travel at 50 km/h or more, and they are not affected by ocean currents or other perturbations, making them ideal candidates for this application.”

As part of their tests, researchers used both hovering UAVs, and models capable of descending down to, floating upon, and taking off from the water’s surface. That allowed the trials to examine differences in transmission efficiencies between both airborne and floating UAVs, and the AUV they accompanied.

“Our results suggest that because of their robust hovering control, stability against sea-surface sway, and operation speed, UAVs may be a suitable communication platform with AUVs in ocean surveys up to a distance of approximately one kilometer from the shore,” says Yokota. 

Though considered successful, those trials will undergo future replication to confirm the initial results, and see whether aerial drones might perform well at even greater distances using muscled-up tech.

Photo: University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science

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