Currently, drones are being applied extensively in various fields, and specialized drones with characteristics targeted toward each respective application are being progressively developed. KDDI, KDDI R&D Laboratories, and Prodrone have developed the world's first "water-air combination drone": It consists of a master drone equipped with a slave underwater drone; the master unit reaches the destination through autonomous flight, carrying the slave unit, after which the underwater slave drone separates and begins inspecting the underwater conditions.
It was developed to reduce manual labor and ensure safety in dam/port facility inspection and field monitoring in fisheries. The first technical demonstration was completed in May 2021. In the field of aquaculture and inspection of water infrastructure in Japan, human resources shortages are becoming a serious problem due to reasons such as an aging population and a declining birthrate. The number of diving professionals was 3300 in 2017, with an average age of 44 years, about 60% of which are in their 40s to 50s. The number of diving professionals is expected to decrease to 2900 by 2027 (Tokyo Kyuei: Underwater Drone Future Forecast Lecture "Expectations for Underwater Drones from a Long-established Marine Company", January 27, 2021).
In addition to this, the number of fishery workers has decreased from 2,380,000 in 2003 to 160,000 in 2016 (Cabinet Office Current Situation and Issues of Japan's Fisheries", September 2017). Another growing concern is that the number of port quay facilities which require inspection is expected to increase from 10% of the total in 2017 to 58% of the total in 2033 (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism/Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry "Strategic infrastructure maintenance through ICT, data utilization, etc." March 2, 2018). To meet these requirements, the demand for underwater drones that can support underwater operations is increasing. However, conventional underwater drones require ships to reach the inspection site.
The recently developed "water-air combination drone" can perform inspections without ship dispatch, by utilizing KDDI's smart drone platform to achieve autonomous non-visual flight and remote monitoring control through mobile communication. The drone reaches the site through autonomous flight, and the underwater drone then detaches and begins remote underwater inspection. The drone is a combined unit, equipped with an underwater slave drone attached to the master aerial drone. A tablet utilizing the smart drone platform enables remote control of several operations for the drone, such as flight, landing, separation, diving, ascent, recovery, and return. In addition, the position of the underwater slave unit can be accurately measured using acoustic measurement technology originally developed by KDDI R&D Laboratories. Moreover, real-time transmission of images from the submerged drone to the operator is possible.
Among the three organizations, KDDI oversees providing the smart drone platforms, KDDI R&D manages the overall development and that of the sound-positioning components, and Prodrone supervises the development of air-water combined drones. In the future, the emergence of new markets for drones is expected in fields involving lakes and underwater operations. The three companies will conduct demonstrations specific to each application during fiscal year 2021 and will aim for commercialization during 2022.
This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.(https://sci-news.co.jp/). Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.