MIT engineers have designed a wind-powered unmanned nautical air-water vehicle that they plan to fly around the world to monitor the oceans of the world.
The robotic glider was developed by combining the learnings it gleaned from an earlier study of the highly efficient albatross bird, which flies long distances without expending much energy thanks to its long wings, which can be up to 12 feet | 3.7 meters in width. MIT borrowed the long wingspan for its glider which allows it to tap into the wind to stay aloft.
Gabriel Bousquet, a former postdoc in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, led the design of the robot as part of his graduate thesis where he explored the possibility of merging the beneficial characteristics of two unlikely bedfellows: the albatross and a sailboat.
His studies of the albatross revealed a few of the tricks it has up its…wings…with the natural lift they provide and the tactical approach it takes to flying between air layers. Conversely, he felt there was an opportunity to, at the same time, tap into the method sailboats use to harness the wind with a sail while also overcoming the detrimental drag from the water with a new design.
The resulting vehicle looks much like an autonomous glider, with a slender body mounted to the expansive wings. Towards the rear, a tall tail that catches the wind like a sail points to the sky with a small keel that pokes straight down into the water when in sail mode.
When the wind dies down, MIT’s creation is able to dip its keep into the water like a sailboat, being pushed forward by its large sail. This hybrid mode of travel allows the 6 pound creation to get around 10 times faster than the average sailboat and can travel the same distance as an albatross with 1/3 the wind.
The team that developed the UNAv believes the vehicle is the most efficient means of getting to and from the vast regions of the world’s oceans that are to date, largely unexplored. They hope to deploy armies of the robotic UNAvs to determine how the oceans of the world are reacting to climate change.
“The oceans remain vastly undermonitored,” says Bousquet. “In particular, it’s very important to understand the Southern Ocean and how it is interacting with climate change. But it’s very hard to get there. We can now use the energy from the environment in an efficient way to do this long-distance travel, with a system that remains small-scale.”