Robotic glider skims and surfs

MIT robotic glider MIT engineers have designed a robotic glider that can skim water as well as surf it like a sailboat. Credit: Gabriel Bousquet

MIT engineers have designed a robotic glider that can skim along the water’s surface, riding the wind ‘like an albatross’ while also surfing the waves like a sailboat.

In regions of high wind, the six-pound lightweight glider is designed to stay aloft. In calmer winds, the robot can dip a keel into the water to ride like a highly efficient sailboat instead. It can cover a given distance using one-third as much wind as an albatross and traveling 10 times faster than a typical sailboat, explained MIT.

“The oceans remain vastly undermonitored,” said Gabriel Bousquet, a former postdoc in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who led the design of the robot as part of his graduate thesis.

“In particular, it’s very important to understand the Southern Ocean and how it is interacting with climate change. But it’s very hard to get there. We can now use the energy from the environment in an efficient way to do this long-distance travel, with a system that remains small-scale.”

Hybrid design

A hybrid design was created resembling an autonomous glider with a 3m wingspan, similar to that of a typical albatross. A tall, triangular sail, as well as a slender, wing-like keel was added.

According to calculations, the wind-powered vehicle would only need relatively calm winds of about 5 knots to zip across waters at a velocity of about 20 knots, or 23 miles per hour.

Once it was flying autonomously during trials a remote control was used to give the robot a ‘down’ command, prompting it to dip low enough to submerge its keel in the river. A command was also created for the robot to fly back up, lifting the keel out of the water

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