easy sailing

"Hovering" boats could solve one of the biggest problems for electric aircraft

Where do you stop to fill up gas in the middle of the ocean?

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Shipping companies dream of drones racing across the ocean to make deliveries—last year, aeronautics giant Airbus began trialling a drone package delivery system. But there's one crucial problem: where are these drones carrying your Amazon packages going to recharge? Unpredictable ocean waves and animals make adding a fueling station mid-ocean a difficult feat, but Russian scientists have a solution: a solar-powered boat that can practically walk on water.

This mouth-full of a boat uses simple physics to create a cushion of air that allows it to effortlessly fly along the tops of ocean waves with near inexhaustible solar energy. The researchers say that this sleek, solar vessel could act as a mobile charging station for drones in the deep ocean or could conduct oceanic search and rescue missions.

"The device literally floats above the water."

Walking, or sailing, on water may sound like a challenging technical feat, but lead researcher on the project from Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU,) Alexei Maistro, told PR Newswire that the levitation is actually a simple trick of physics.

"On the physics lessons at school the experiment is demonstrated when a tennis ball hangs in the stream of the air from the vacuum cleaner: it doesn't fall down and doesn't fly up," said Maistro. "The same principle is used here."

The boat, which the team dubbed "Storm-600" and is approximately the size of a standard sailboat, is part of a family of vehicles called a "wing-in-ground-effect vehicle" (GEV,) which in this case is a hybrid between an airplane and a boat. These vehicles, including planes like the Boeing Pelican, have short wings that dip into the water, creating a semi-enclosed cavity between the bottom of the plane and the water's surface.

This half-boat-half-plane vehicle (called the "Storm-600") is designed to skate along the surface of water and act as a mid-ocean fuel-up station for wayward drones. Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU)

When the plane accelerates forward it experiences lift between the wings that creates a cushion of air between the boat and the water. This cushion pushes the boat upwards, enough to skate along the water's surface but not such much that it takes off completely. The closer the wings are to the surface, the more effective this wing-in-ground-effect is. And, because these crafts experience less drag as an effect of the air cushion, they are also able to use less fuel than traditional boats or planes.

"The device literally floats above the water," said Maistro. "There is a screen effect when an aerodynamic cushion is created under the wing of the aircraft. Our wing-in-ground-effect vehicle has long wings, thus it moves along the air cushion itself."

The craft designed by the SPbPU researchers has been able to reach speeds up to 124 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour,) and researchers plan to increase the speed even further up to 186 miles per hour (300 kilometers per hour.) Part of what makes this possible, in addition to its air cushion, is that this craft is free of two heavy loads: fuel tanks and a human pilot.

The solar panels spread across the surface of the craft negate the need for heavy fuel tanks, but to make the vehicle even faster the researchers also decided to do away with a human pilot. Instead, they equipped the boat with an AI that uses lidar and radio radar to see obstacles in its path up to 30 miles away.

The team plans to test their vehicle this summer on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia, and say that it has a future as a mid-ocean fuel-up station for underwater and air drones and as a water patrol vehicle.

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