A swarm of drones sounds like one of the scariest things to ever come out of MIT, but Hydroswarm, a new startup developing underwater drones that automatically work together, instead has visions of mapping the entire ocean.
“The whole point of Hydroswarm is to provide a cheap and scalable method of mapping the ocean,” said Sampriti Bhattacharyya, founder and chief executive of Hydroswarm and a grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There is so much potential out there. We had a space era. With all the subsea robotics, it could be a new era in ocean exploration.”
The small drones can work individually or together to either map different parts of the ocean or use sensors to detect abnormalities, including oil spills or radiation.
“These are football-shaped drones that are intelligent, autonomous,” she said. “You put them in (the water), they map, and once they’re done, you retrieve the information from them.”
The breakthrough, she said, was in the communications between the drones.
“You drop five of them out, and they use the algorithm to understand (which other drones) they should talk to, and how they should pass on the information,” Bhattacharyya said.
She said the idea for the company — which is a MassChallenge finalist — came during the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“We used a bunch of ships, and we used the smartest drone we had at the time,” she said. “You’re trying to search this huge area. When you’re searching for an airplane, all you’re trying to do is pick up a ping.”
She said a group of small drones outfitted with equipment to listen for the plane’s black box would have been more efficient, and maybe more effective.
“People talk about the robots taking over, but we don’t have the technology to find the darn plane,” she said.
A drone swarm would also be useful during an oil spill to quickly measure the pollution below the surface, she said.
“Instead of using a bunch of boats to measure pollution, you distribute a bunch of sensors and have them record it,” Bhattacharyya said. Using small drones would be more effective and safer because humans could stay far away from hazardous pollution and material.
The drones are designed to be outfitted with different kinds of sensors, making them useful for a variety of applications.
Right now, the drones can go between 200 and 250 meters deep, but later versions will be able to go 1,000 meters under the surface, Bhattacharyya said. Normal battery life is about four hours.
The drones could also hit the consumer market, she said, to do things such as follow along with scuba divers who have no equivalent to aerial drones.