Autonomous glider can fly like an albatross, cruise like a sailboat

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 robot is designed to stay aloft, much like its avian counterpart. Where there are calmer winds, the robot can dip a keel into the water to ride like a highly efficient sailboat instead. The robotic system, which borrows from both nautical and biological designs, can cover a given distance using one-third as much wind as an albatross and traveling 10 times faster than a typical sailboat. The glider is also relatively lightweight, weighing about 6 pounds. The researchers hope that in the near future, such compact, speedy robotic water-skimmers may be deployed in teams to survey large swaths of the ocean. "The oceans remain vastly undermonitored," says 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." Bousquet will present details of the robotic system this week at IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Brisbane, Australia. His collaborators on the project are Jean-Jacques Slotine, professor of mechanical engineering and information sciences and of brain sciences; and Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering. The physics of speed Last year, Bousquet, Slotine, and Triantafyllou published a study on the dynamics of albatross flight, in which they identified the mechanics that enable the tireless traveler to cover vast distances while expending minimal energy. The key to the bird's marathon voyages is its ability to ride in and out of high- and low-speed layers of air. Specifically, the researchers found the bird is able to perform a mechanical process called a "transfer of momentum," in which it takes momentum from higher, faster layers of air, and by diving down transfers that momentum to lower, slower layers, propelling itself without having to continuously flap its wings. Interestingly, Bousquet observed that the physics of albatross flight is very similar to that of sailboat travel. Both the albatross and the sailboat transfer momentum in order to keep moving. But in the case of the sailboat, that transfer occurs not between layers of air, but between the air and water. "Sailboats take momentum from the wind with their sail, and inject it into the water by pushing back with their keel," Bousquet explains. "That's how energy is extracted for sailboats." Bousquet also realized that the speed at which both an albatross and a sailboat can travel depends upon the same general equation, related to the transfer of momentum. Essentially, both the bird and the boat can travel faster if they can either stay aloft easily or interact with two layers, or mediums, of very different speeds. The albatross does well with the former, as its wings provide natural lift, though it flies between air layers with a relatively small difference in windspeeds. Meanwhile, the sailboat excels at the latter, traveling between two mediums of very different speeds -- air versus water -- though its hull creates a lot of friction and prevents it from getting much speed. Bousquet wondered: What if a vehicle could be designed to perform well in both metrics, marrying the high-speed qualities of both the albatross and the sailboat? "We thought, how could we take the best from both worlds?" Bousquet says.