Blueye Robotics recently unveiled the Blueye Pioneer, an underwater drone that consumers can navigate to as deep as 150 meters under the ocean surface — about eight times deeper than divers can normally go.
I made my way to Santa Cruz, California, where the team from Trondheim, Norway was visiting, to get a hands-on look at the drone. When I arrived, the water was pretty murky with algae, so founders Christine Spiten and Erik Dyrkoren took their drone over to the nearby Seymour Marine Discovery Center. We let the drone loose in the aquarium instead.
Dyrkoren showed me the camera view of the drone as it was transmitted over a wire from the underwater Pioneer to an iPad. The video was transferred in real time, and it was good enough that we could use it to navigate a drone that was so deep in the water you could no longer see it. I was an underwater tourist, sort of. I didn’t see that much during that demo, but the potential seems pretty amazing.
When Dyrkoren handed the controls to me, I was surprised to see it was an Xbox video game controller. He showed me how to make the drone move, using the left stick, or go up or down, using the right stick. The whole drone kind of looks like a big fish.
I also took the drone out into the ocean waters off the Santa Cruz pier. It moved around on the surface, but the images that showed up on the iPad were too murky to discern anything.
Sadly, you can’t easily broadcast data from underwater to the surface in a wireless way. But a cable works pretty well, Spiten said. The tether is 250 meters long, and the drone can withstand ocean pressures at a depth of 150 meters. (Scuba divers can usually only go about 30 meters deep.) The cable goes to a buoy on the ocean surface that transmits the data wirelessly to a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
“We made it easy to use, with professional-grade performance,” Dyrkoren said.
The drone has propellers on either side that can make it go forward or backward, and it has vertical thrusters that make it go up or down. I controlled the drone and managed to keep it from banging into the walls of the aquarium. It was pretty intuitive, and within a minute or so I was able to maneuver the drone in any direction. You can also ratchet down the power to get it to maneuver around delicate coral reefs, Spiten said.
“Obviously we don’t want it to disturb the environment in the ocean,” she explained.
The drone travels at a speed of 2.5 meters per second (5 knots). That’s pretty fast, allowing it to keep up with some fish and other sea creatures. It can survive in rough seas and icy cold temperatures, and the batteries last about two hours.
In the front is a high-definition, wide-angle video camera. It works in low light and can send true colors over the wire. A big part of the design is the battery, which is at the bottom of the drone and helps to stabilize it.
Below 16 feet, red colors start to fade and images become green or blue. But Blueye puts the color back into the image, using an algorithm. It developed its color filter design and control signal algorithms in collaboration with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems (NTNU AMOS).
The prototype drone looked very solid and durable. It can sit upright and balance in the water, and it can withstand crashing into some rocks. The company is aiming to launch a $3,500 product in the first half of 2018. Previous drones used by filmmakers, oceanographers, and the military cost $20,000 or more.
It will be fun to take this drone into unexplored territory. The ocean is the Earth’s last frontier, as less than 10 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped, Spiten said. There isn’t really another way for non-scientists to get a view of the ocean except by using a remote drone, since daylight disappears at around 60 meters under the ocean surface.
Blueye Robotics has 16 employees in Norway and Palo Alto, California. The company is raising money from the Norwegian government and other sources. Early customers include The Norwegian Society for Search and Rescue, Redningsselskapet, and the World Wildlife Fund Norway.
The New York Harbor School has a goal of planting as many as a billion oysters, and Blueye is working with the school to help get the project started.
Scientists may use Pioneer for environmental monitoring. And fish farmers, owners of offshore wind farms, and other ocean-based enterprises can utilize the drone’s capabilities to stay in control of their underwater operations. The drone could also prove invaluable in underwater rescue efforts.
And then, of course, tour boat operators and ocean enthusiasts could buy these drones to show us what lurks under the ocean’s surface.
“We had a sea lion come over and check [the drone] out and play with it,” Dyrkoren said.