We hear a lot about aerial and underwater drones, but ones that travel on the water's surface … not so much. They can be quite useful, though, as we discovered when we recently checked out the Heron USV (unmanned surface vessel) at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

Based on an earlier model known as the Kingfisher, the Heron is made by Canadian manufacturer Clearpath Robotics. That same company previously brought us the unmanned land-going Grizzly Robotic Utility Vehicle.

The Heron weighs in at 28 kg (62 lb), measures 1.35 meters long (53 inches), and is propelled by two battery-powered jet thrusters located in each of its pontoons. These take it up to a top speed of 3.3 knots (6 km/h or 3.8 mph) and because they're bidirectional, they also allow it to turn on the spot or go in reverse.

Equipped with GPS and utilizing open-source software, the craft is able to autonomously find its way around bodies of water, carrying up to 10 kg (22 lb) of sensors or other gear as it does so. It's partially designed for use by researchers who are developing autonomous aquatic robotic vehicles, who don't want to bother with the hassle and expense of using full-size passenger-capable boats for their studies. It does have many other possible applications, however.

For one thing, it can be used by municipal authorities to measure sediment buildup in stormwater runoff ponds. "Previously, they would send out a guy in a boat, with a GPS and a long stick," Clearpath's Jeff Schmidt told us. "He'd go out to various points, and actually probe to find what the depth is. Now, all they have to do is launch the Heron into the water. It's equipped with sonar, and it can visit different points based on GPS, and sample [the depth] at those points."

Additionally, the craft can be used for reconnaissance/surveillance, or it can be equipped with a water-sampling system, in which tubes reaching down into the water draw samples that are stored in syringes for subsequent lab analysis.

You can see the Heron in use, in the video below.

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