For the Jacques Cousteau in all of us

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In our March/April 2016 report, “Recreational Drones: Out of Control,” we told you that 1.6 million of the remote-controlled flying machines were sold in the United States in 2015. We wouldn’t be surprised if manufacturers of drones that cruise underwater start to reach out to consumers soon.

Numerous reports in the media have shone a spotlight on submersible drones, but those reports included models that are configured and priced for nonconsumer uses. One consumer model for which preorders were being accepted at press time is the Trident, from startup company OpenROV. The preorder price of $1,399 was tied to a crowdfunding effort to build capital for the company, so it can purchase tooling, components and materials that OpenROV says it requires to launch the production process. That price exceeds the price of many sophisticated flying drones by several hundred dollars.

Nina Mahmoudian, who is a mechanical engineering professor at Michigan Technological University, is involved in the development of submersible drones for the university. When submersible drones hit the consumer market en masse, she will scrutinize them for how they’re recharged and the ease of use that their interface provides.

Mahmoudian says most of today’s commercial submersible drones don’t permit easy access to the vehicle’s battery. Instead, they have a plug that connects to an electrical source. She prefers a design that has a door for the battery compartment, which allows for a charged battery to be swapped easily with the battery that’s discharged.

She also is disappointed with the user interface that some models have because of their overly complex operation, which requires “a lot of effort to [select] the ‘mission points’ and check the motors and sensors.” She adds, “There is not much feedback to the user.”

Mahmoudian expects that the price of models that come to market will depend on the accuracy of the vehicle’s onboard components that show the user where he/she pilots the vehicle, which is particularly important in water that isn’t clear. “The challenge [to making models for consumers] is dealing with an inhospitable water environment,” she says.