Vertical Take-Off Drone Helps Aiviq Navigate Ice

Published Nov 4, 2016 8:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

A different kind of unmanned drone is making its way to working vessels from the Caribbean to the Arctic. Aerovel's Flexrotor has the desirable ability to take off vertically from a small deck area and then switch to horizontal flight in midair – and its endurance lets it venture far from the ship. 

Already it has caught the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard, which likes the idea that it could be used from a wide variety of vessel platforms and could increase surveillance range. It is also attractive to tuna seiners, who use maintenance-intensive helicopters to search for schools of fish. 

“We had shown that Flexrotor can operate from a small boat, but the key remaining question was whether it could effectively spot fish," said  Aerovel’s Tad McGeer. "Now we’ve done that, with one [school of feeding fish] after another popping up on-screen as the turret scanned the middle distance.”

The 50-pound aircraft also deployed on Woods Hole's support vessel Umbra off Isla del Coco, Costa Rica last year. Its mission was to test its ability to track and intercept illegal fishing boats. 

More recently, the Flexrotor was used to scout leads in the ice for Edison Choest's ice class offshore support vessel Aiviq in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. (Aerovel did not release the vessel's identity, but its name is visible in accompanying video.) The Aiviq was tasked with retrieving offshore mooring anchors, and  Aerovel says that the small drone helped her navigate safely through floes. The drone flew a combined 19 hours over the span of the two-week mission. 

Flexrotor first took off and transitioned to horizontal flight in 2011; the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research provided funding for its development. 

The current version of the unit has a top speed of 45 knots and endurance of 15 hours. An upgraded Mark 2 edition will be able to stay up for over 40 hours.