You only have to look up on any typical day to realise that flying drones are taking over our skies.
What you might not know is that they are also coming for land and sea.
Obviously scientists and engineers have been using autonomous and semi-autonomous submarines for years. They’ve allowed us to explore the depths and learn more about the mysteries of the underwater world. Now regular consumers and people who aren’t James Cameron can now begin buying their own underwater drones.
What Can I Do with an Underwater Drone?
The first thing that comes to mind is exactly the same use case photography drones have in the sky. Sometimes we would like pictures and videos of scenes underwater. Of course, until now the easiest way to do this is by getting a diving certification. Then grab your underwater camera and go take the pictures you want.
In reality however, diving is a risky activity at the best of times. The certification can be tedious and let’s not even get started on the expense! So for those (like me) who are curious about the underwater, er, aquascape, but don’t want to be eaten or drown these could be the best thing ever.
Apart from photography, an underwater drone is very useful for exploration. It can simply be for your own pleasure or for practical reasons. Perhaps you want to inspect some damage or map stuff. Stuff that happens to be underwater.
The real mass-market appeal for underwater drones might come from a surprising market – fishing.
It turns out that you can use a drone like this instead of casting your line. Which means having precise control over where your line ends up before being released.
I’m sure people will figure out even more uses for these drones a time goes by, but for now let’s look at what you should consider when buying one.
Wired or Wireless Underwater Drone?
This is the main issue when it comes to drones under water. While radio waves will go pretty far in air, they don’t travel through water with the same ease. Essentially this means you either have to keep an antenna above the surface or have a wired control.
If the drone uses a wire there’s obviously a limit to how long it can be. Based on what I’ve read, low frequency radio waves can propagate well in water. The downside is that you need a pretty big antenna. This is the sort of rig you’re more likely to see on serious scientific equipment. Larger antenna means a larger chance of it snagging and breaking. Even with special low-frequency equipment, you can expect to lose contact with the drone. Which is why the more advanced units are at least partly-autonomous.
Does it “Snorkel” or Dive?
Some “underwater” drones are actually just RC boats with cameras that point down underwater. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but you have to be aware of the limitations that this will bring. What most people are going to look for is a drone that will dive and can maneuver underwater.
As I said above, unless you are using a communications wire, diving drones are going to break contact. So the bottom line is that if you want to dive, explore and have constant live picture then you’ll have to go for a wired model.
Depth Rating for an Underwater Drone
Water pressure climbs pretty quickly as you do down. According to the US National Ocean Service every (approximately) 10 meters you descend will add another 14.5 PSI. Which is why you need to pay very special attention to how much depth a given drone is rated for .
Flying drones face low pressure at altitude which pose several risks, but in general the drone will be just fine once it descends to air that’s thick enough. If an underwater drone goes too deep the pressure can crack it’s hull, total the camera lens and basically kill it for good.
Salt- or Freshwater Underwater Drone?
Where will you be using the drone? There are important differences between fresh, brackish and saltwater. Drones that are not rated to be used in saltwater could suffer damage or performance malfunctions. Make sure that the drone you are looking at is certified by the manufacturer for the type of environment you want to use it in.
Level of Autonomy
When it comes to underwater drones, autonomy is way more important than it is with flying ones. When you fly a drone you can always fly it manually if it gets confused. You’re also meant to maintain line of sight for that very reason. In other words, autonomy and manual control live side-by-side with flying drones. At best, the autonomous systems is a backup for when radio contact is lost. Since you can’t see your underwater drone and wireless models tend to lose signal when they dive, it’s extra important that it has enough of a brain to at least surface again.
Your drone will of course have an onboard camera, otherwise what would the point be? Still, there are other sensor options that might be on offer and the tech is expanding all the time. A “fishfinder”, which is basically sonar, is a common feature on fishing drones. Some drones might also be better at seeing in murky water, or will carry an onboard light source. We also need some way to know how deep the drone is, so a depth sensor is also a feature to look out for.
Flying drones have made us think of battery life in terms of minutes, since it takes so much energy to support a drone’s weight in the air. When it comes to the water however, it’s better to start thinking in hours. Since the water itself supports the drone’s weight, power goes to propulsion, steering and electronic functions. It’s not unheard of for underwater drones to operate for hours if they aren’t going flat out all the time.
While all underwater drones rely on at least one camera, they are not made for the same use cases. If what you want to do is take stunning HD or 4K video in clear waters, you should choose a drone with a camera that suits. If you want to use it for utility purposes, such as pipeline inspection, then low-light performance might be more important than resolution. Pay careful attention to the camera specifications and what the advertised abilities of the drone camera are.
The PowerRay from Power Vision is probably the commercial drone that really kick-started wider interest in a wetter take on the drone phenomenon. This is doubtlessly the gold-standard at the moment. Although Power Vision charges a hefty sum for the PowerRay Wizard, compared to premium photography drones it’s in exactly the same ballpark.
The PowerRay certainly lives up to its name. It has that distinctive triangular ray shape and smooth hydrodynamic lines. Just sitting there on dry land you get the impression will slip through the water with no trouble at all.
While Power Vision created this underwater drone for fishing specifically, it’s clearly evolved into a general-purpose underwater photography machine.
This is the “Wizard” bundle, with the “Explorer” bundle being the alternative. The Wizard comes with the 64GB version of the drones, which means more space for footage. You get a base station, controller, smartphone clip, charger, bait dropper, fishfinder and a Zeiss VR One smartphone enclosure headset. Most crucially, the Wizard bundle comes with a 230ft communications cable as opposed to the standard 164ft cable. So clearly the Wizard bundle is the one to go for if money is no object.
The PowerRay can dive down to 30m , which is a lot. Which is pretty comparable to standard initial scuba diving depths. The typical recreational diving limit is 39m, for comparison.
In terms of battery life, the official numbers look very promising. In still water without heavy throttle, PowerVision say it should last four hours. Then there are two speed modes which last 1.5 hours and 30 minutes respectively. So basically the faster you go the less run time you have. The faster it will go in still water is 1.5 M/s, which is 5.4 kph. Just remember that your range is only as long as the cord.
This is one of the “cheaper” underwater drones I’ve seen, but the price tag is not the most eye-catching aspect of this weird little guy. No, the thing everyone will notice first is how this is made to look like a fish! The company refers to the BIKI as “bionic”, which is pretty accurate since it simply means the technology has been inspired by nature. I guess the PowerRay could also be marketed that way, although it’s a completely different kind of fish.
The BIKI is however much more worthy of the term thanks to the fact that it actually swims! It doesn’t use traditional propulsion at all. It has a tailfin that swishes from side to side, pushing the drone ahead like a real fish. It’s pretty awesome to see and really makes the BIKI look alive.
This might make one wonder about the speed and efficiency of the BIKI. First of all, this little guy can dive down to almost 60 meters. That puts it in the same league as the iBubble at a fraction of the cost.
The BIKI is an interesting take on underwater drones. It’s completely wireless and swims along the surface. You control it with what’s essentially a TV remote as well as a smartphone app.
However, once you command BIKI to dive, you lose the live video feed. Since wifi doesn’t work underwater. The handheld control itself is apparently waterproof with an u nderwater control distance of just under 10 meters. From the app you can pre-programa route for BIKI to film.
Like the iBubble, the BIKI is also designed to swim alongside you. It as quite a bit of autonomy. It uses echolocation to avoid swimming into things. It has built-in GPS and it self-balances. It would have been nice for a bracelet control or at least a wrist strap on the provided control.
One thing that immediately concerned me was how the footage would turn out given the violent side-to-side movement of the BIKI. To combat this the company implemented rather impressive compensation that means the camera effectively stands still while the body moves around it.
The BIKI isn’t for everyone, but it is one of the coolest drone products I have ever seen.
The Poseidon I underwater drone has one of the most straightforward designs I’ve seen. Minimal curves are the order of the day here. It comes with either a 164ft tether or a whopping 328ft tether. It solved the wireless signal problem by using a buoy antenna. So you can livestream your dive. The camera is a 1080p, 30fps unit. It’s equipped with a 120-degree wide angle lens.
The specs on the Poseidon are impressive. It’s fast at 2M/s max thrust and will run for five hours on a full charge with average use. It can dive down to 120m , which is one of the highest numbers I’ve seen. However, even the long tether is about 20m shorter than this.
It’s three thruster can push it in six directions so as long as the tether doesn’t get tangled on anything, you can do some pretty great exploration and filming. There’s very little not to like about the Poseidon I other than a lack of autonomy. There are no particularly flashy aspects to it, but it’s a high-performance machine that can fill a number of roles.
The iBubble Underwater Drone
While most drones meant for underwater use work on the assumption that you will be staying on dry land, the iBubble takes the term “underwater drones” very literally. It’s basically a DJI Spark, but for scuba divers. This little guy will follow you around as you plumb the depths just like airborne “follow me’ drones.
In terms of design this looks a lot like other scuba equipment. Sleek plastic, high-visibility colours and a focus on functionality. I think it looks quite cute and friendly if you ask me.
The first thing you’ll notice is that this drone is pretty darn expensive. We are definitely into professional or at least prosumer territory here. There is however a whole list of reasons why the price tag is so steep. In fact, after reading through everything the iBubble can do it starts to feel like a bit of a bargain.
First of all, this underwater drone is 100% autonomous. You don’t have to control it at all. Which is a good thing, because you already have more than enough things to worry about when you’re diving in the ocean.
Speaking of which, the iBubble is rated for a depth of 60 meters. Way past the limit for casual, recreational scuba diving. This just affirms the fact that this is no toy.
Since it’s pretty dark down that deep, it’s also equipped with two 1000 lumen lights. Which is strong enough to at least light the subjects just in front of the drone. They are billed as wide-angle lights, but I suggest looking for example footage on YouTube to make up your mind about their effectiveness.
As an autonomous camera drone you can switch the iBubble between different filming modes. This is aided by the seven propellers they put on this baby. Which makes it pretty much a complete camera platform.
The battery is rated for one hour of operation and can be swapped out easily. That’s not nearly as much as the PowerRay above, but given that this is a scuba companion, that’s well within the length of most dives.
So how do you control the drone underwater? Luckily the drone isn’t tethered to you. The diver has a short-range control mounted on their wrist which lets them switch modes and do other housekeeping.
The “bracelet” can also be used to take manual control of the drone. By which they mean grabbing it and using it as an underwater camera.
So what about the camera specifications? Well, there aren’t any. Despite paying an arm and a leg for this drone, you still have to provide the actual camera yourself. It supports most of the latest GoPro models, so at least you have a decent range of sensor choices. Still, I would have like to see at least some sort of bundled standard camera.
The last thing worth mentioning about the iBubble underwater drone is the optional explorer pack. This is also quite an expensive add-on, but it lets you convert the iBubble into a more traditional tethered drone. That turns it into an incredibly versatile machine. Certainly the cost of the explorer pack is less than a separate tethered drone. However, in this configuration the one hour runtime is a bit of a bummer.
Yes, that’s a Dio reference and I don’t care if it makes sense. What does make perfect sense is how cool these underwater drones are. If you have any interest in the world beneath the waves, it’s clear that we now have plenty of options to choose from.
The main problem is really the entry-level end of the market. There’s no submersible equivalent to a DJI Spark or Tello. It’s like to see a product under $500 that’s worth owning, but even the cheapest underwater drone are only slightly south of a grand.
That aside, if you have the sort of dough these underwater drones demand you’ll be in for a real treat. Whether you are a filmmaker, a diving enthusiast, water sports fan or geek explorer, there’s a drone out there which will make you very happy.
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