A drone that can fly, swim and hitchhike

Scientists have designed a drone that can not only move both under and over water, but can also cling to, for example, ships to hit a trip.

You are standing on the deck of a ship looking out over the slippery surface of the ocean when something suddenly starts bubbling and whirling. Then a drone rises from the water and flies away. It sounds like a wonderful scenario, but it may soon become a reality.

A team of primarily Chinese scientists developed a drone that can both swim and fly, and which can lift itself out of the water in less than a second. This makes the robot suitable for all kinds of tasks at sea, such as discovering icebergs, observing life in the sea and inspecting structures that are (partially) underwater.

Micro-robots that can do this already existed before.


To achieve the dual and interchangeable propulsion mode, the designers have equipped the drone with folding propellers. Under water they are folded and therefore shorter and stronger. They then act like the propellers of a boat. Above the water, the propellers unfold and the drone flies like a helicopter.


In addition, the drone has another useful function: it can adhere to all kinds of surfaces, both above and below water. It gives him the opportunity to hit a trip with, for example, ships or temporarily stand still on a rock instead of hanging over it. This saves a lot of fuel and thus weight, and allows the drone to travel longer distances.

For the design of the drone’s attachment function, the manufacturers looked at the remora: a fish about half a meter long with a suction cup on top of its head. With this, the animal attaches itself to whales, dolphins and sharks, to take a walk, seek protection and save energy. Meanwhile, the animal feeds in part on the parasites that live on the host’s skin: a true win-win situation.


The suction cup (on both the fish and the drone) consists of toothed lamellae surrounded by soft tissue. If the slats touch the surface that the suction cup wants to attach to, it creates a lot of friction. The soft tissue then seals the connection waterproof so that the space between the suction cup and the surface can be vacuumed. In this way, the fish or drone sucks itself in. If you let the water in again, it may loosen later.

The drone suction cup can adhere to many types of surfaces, whether they are slippery or rough and wet or dry. The control is done with a remote control, and it is also possible to stick to moving objects.

First step

Biomimetics is the name of the science based on copying animals. Thanks to the same science, we already have super strong glue, and some drones can now land on a branch.

The Chinese researchers see their research as a first step towards a future where robots will independently monitor structures and marine animals. Currently, the drones are helping biologists interested in aquatic animal behavior. The other applications will take a little longer, email researcher Li Wen, who participated in the study.

The researchers published their research today in the scientific journal Science Robotics.

Opening image: Abert Kok, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

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