Compared to multicopters, drones of the fixed-wing variety can travel very long distances thanks to their more efficient shape in the air. One downside to this is the space needed to launch them, along with some sort of mechanism to propel them forward for take-off. A team of Canadian scientists has come up with a solution to these shortcomings, with a drone that can land and take off again on water and possibly stop to charge itself with solar power in between flights.

Indeed a drone that could take off vertically like a chopper and soar like a plane once it's in the air, offering greater range and payload capacity, would be a huge step forward for drone technology. Last year we saw researchers from the Delft University of Technology demonstrate a drone that does just that on dry land, intended to deliver medical supplies to tough-to-reach areas.

The Sherbrooke University Water-Air VEhicle (SUWAVE), developed by researchers from that very institution, instead operates on water, and it does so with good reason. This allows it to essentially crash land on the surface of a lake, with testing showing that it can endure those impacts, and then use a clever mechanism to launch itself into the air again.

The key is a rotating center body, which contains the battery and the motor and hooks up to the propellor. With the drone resting horizontally on the water, this component sits at 90 degrees to the rest of the aircraft. When it is ready to fly again, thrust is applied which pulls the aircraft forwards and upwards, passively swinging this center body into its resting place in between the wings and allowing it to fly like a regular fixed-wing drone.

Crafted from polystyrene and carbon fiber, the SUWAVE also bears some resemblance to another marine-minded drone we looked at last year called the AquaMav. This too can land and take off from the water, but actually dives beneath the surface in the process to scoop up water samples.

The motivation behind the SUWAVE is purely to extend the range of fixed-wing drones by using lakes as pitstops. And the researchers have done their homework. They calculate that approximately 9 percent of Canada's 10 million sq km (3.8 sq mi) is covered in lakes. If they wanted to traverse the country north to south, they say the drone would only need to be fitted out with a 20-km range (12.4 mi).

Such a journey is ways off, however. The team has successfully tested its takeoff and landing capabilities, but it is still at prototype stage right now. The next steps involve developing autonomous flight control and fitting the drone out with solar panels so it can stay on the move.

The team's paper describing the project is available online, and the drone can be seen in action in the video below.

Source: IEEE XPlore via IEEE Spectrum

View gallery - 4 images