If you'd like to explore shipwrecks, get close to aquatic nature, or take your fishing expeditions to another level, then check out this guide to the best underwater drones in 2020 (also known as ROVs, or remote operated vehicles).
Ten years ago, the camera drone market took off, literally. The best drones are typically designed for aerial use, but could what goes up also go down? Yes – though not actually the same vehicles. On the face of it, going underwater is easier than flying, so you might wonder why it’s taken nearly a decade for underwater drones to emerge.
The answer is two-fold. In part, they’ve been there all along, with grander sounding titles (and price tags)... Remember the framing story at the beginning of Titanic, in which wreck explorers guide robotic submersibles? That, in essence, is the kind of thing we’re talking about here.
The other reason that ‘underwater drones’ might not have had such immediate commercial appeal to inventive manufacturers is that photographers have had a long-established underwater solution in the form of underwater camera housings. Since gravity is rather less of an issue beneath the surface (but powerful flashes or lights are of great benefit), a good waterproof housing enables you to get great underwater shots.
Nevertheless there are clear advantages to a remote presence underwater. You might want to discretely explore a prospective fishing ground, traverse waters colder or more shark-infested than you’d want to dive into, or perhaps you just don’t want to put down that piña colada. For this and so many reasons, it’s time to 'robot' things up a notch.
Best underwater drones and ROVs
Travelling underwater is not a friendly environment for high-frequency radio used for the live video feedback on aerial drones, so the PowerRay is provided with a 70m (230ft) umbilical cable which gently rests behind it as it is propelled by its two horizontal props. The body also features a central vertical thruster to make changing depth a straightforward process which won’t cause tangling of the communication cable.
The depths can be a murky place, even the first few meters, so the Ray adds two dimmable 450 lumen headlights lights to illuminate your subject, which can be captured in 4K (30fps max) or 4,000 x 3,000 pixel stills. With a maximum ISO of 1600, the camera is more than capable in the depths the PowerRay can manage, though the 1/2.3-inch sensor could be bigger in a perfect world. 32 or 64Gb storage is provided depending on the version you choose.
There is an PowerRay Explorer which is the basic video shooting drone, and a PowerRay Wizard edition which adds the PowerSeeker sonar device (which can detect the underwater landscape and use temperature data to identify fishing hotspots), bait dropper and a carry-on friendly travel case and Zeiss VR One Goggles, which provide an alternative means of exploring the depths from the deck.
The latter isn’t just good fun, it makes enjoying the 1080p live feedback easier than on your phone screen on a bright day, although the price differential between the Explorer and Wizard versions is considerable.
Supplied in a nice backpack, not unlike those photographers might use to carry a body and lenses, with a laptop in a separate bay, setting up is reasonably easy – an included towel means you can set the drone down on sharp coastal rocks safely.
On the downside, the protective caps for the 50m or 100m tether cable are easily lost, but otherwise the drone is solidly built and can be thrown into the sea after setup and can easily take a few knocks underwater.
The bright color is easily spotted too. Smart features include depth-lock (like altitude hold on a flying drone), and there is 64Gb storage to record to. The five thrusters make the drone quick to respond – useful as you need to tilt the body up or down to look around.
You can lock the pitch, but the camera (and accompanying 1,200 lumen lights) cannot be separately turned, making this a real pilot’s craft, and fun with it.
The thoughtful app is easily operated, VR compatible, and 4K UHD camera produces great results, with the only complaint really being that in rougher seas the image stabilization could be better. Overall, though, it's a great product, and very competitively priced against others on this list.
This is in many respects a smaller version of Chasing’s Gladius Mini. It’s certainly the same striking yellow, and very pleasingly incorporates the maneuverable five-thruster design, which makes it possible to tilt the body (and, by extension, camera) up and down.
If you think that might make it hard to control, worry not – the depth lock feature is retained from its bigger brother too. So how has Chasing sliced the price to below $500/£450?
Firstly the camera is a more modest 1080p, supported by only 250 lumens of light (at shallower depths this shouldn’t be an issue). Secondly the umbilical is somewhat shorter, though the surface end is actually a waterproof floating Wi-Fi buoy, so you can throw it in the water and, so long as you’re within Wi-Fi range of it (admittedly not far given the water), you have control, maximizing use of the 15m tether.
The battery is contained in the drone and is the only element you’ll need to charge, but there is no remote control – piloting is via your phone or tablet and a 720p live feed. For most, though, it’s all you need, and the app is well featured.
Like its natural namesake, the PowerDolphin skims along the surface, able to see above and below. Piloting is very familiar to aerial drone operators, featuring as it does a phone-ready remote controller with an app which uses your phone as a monitor (this will be very familiar to PowerEgg X users, since it’s the same controller and the same Vision+ 2 app! Available for Android or iOS).
While the craft remains on the surface, propelled forward by two propellers, the 4K camera can be expended on an arm to look an impressive 150 degrees down into the water, or 70 degrees above the surface in much the same way as an aerial drone’s camera gimbal can be tilted. Thanks to being above water, GPS return to home is available.
If you really just want to skim around the surface, you can make do with the PowerDolphin Standard pack, though the PowerDolphin Explorer adds a better remote and 800m range (though it helps to stand a few feet above the surface, say on a boat).
The PowerDolphin Wizard edition is definitely the best value though, including as it does the ‘PowerSeeker’ sonar device, which can be used to map the water bed or look for fish in efficient grid patterns, and a bait dropping box to further push the odds in your favor.
This is a real traditionalist's underwater explorer robot, which is not only very capable, but looks the part too (though is not actually quite as big as it might seem on first glance; viewed from above it’s about the size of a letter).
Control is via a 100m cable, supplied on a reel, to a black plastic briefcase-like base-station which opens to reveal a monitor and physical switch-gear. There is none of the design elegance of the PowerVision products; this is a device designed not in reference to aerodynamic drones and consumer products, but professional ones.
In order to give it the strength to do a job, the body houses four thrusters, meaning you can get enough force and direction behind the robot arm to lift up to 10Kg objects from beneath the waves. You might choose, for example, to assist environmental projects by lifting debris or litter, or you might fancy beating coastal (metal) detectorists by grabbing valuables before they wash up on the shore.
You can see what you’re doing from the camera, though oddly the focal length is such that the hands itself are too near to be in perfect focus – not to the extent it’ll slow you down, though.
You can also record in 4K UHD onto the camera which provides 1080p live feedback as you explore the depths, illuminated by two 300 lumen LEDs. ThorRobotics provide alternative versions with mobile phone mounts rather than the 'Ground Station'.
The BW Space Pro might not be the fastest of the drones here, but it is a quality product built with photographers in mind, which is why it is offered with a range of different cameras, including a 6x zoom lens (the benefits of which, in water, are open to debate).
The aperture is, relatively speaking, at the wider end (f/1.5) for underwater drones, which is a noticeable, plus, though some of the manufacturers stability claims are perhaps slightly overstated – the four thrusters make tilting 45-degrees each way possible, but the Gladius Mini does the same with an extra thruster for stability. It’s also worth mentioning that predecessors with similar branding cannot even do the tilt, so be warned if you're searching around for cheaper versions online!
Another plus of the Pro version is AI object-tracking. Still the robot has a sturdy frame which can be thrown into the water from the bank without worry, and subsequent control is via the Dive App (iOS/Android) with depth hold and auto-adjusting lighting (maxing at 1,380 lumens each from both headlights).
Included in the box is a joypad-like remote with a (slightly flimsy) phone clip – optionally a larger mini-tablet grip controller is available too.
With an arrangement of four thrusters, which will be very familiar to aerial drone operators, plus two for forward movement, this is an impressive drone. It had some early issues, especially for iOS users, but a software update has solved that. Now it is a great choice for all who want to explore the depths.
The 4K video looks good, though at 1/2.5-inches the camera doesn’t have the biggest of sensors, but the 160-degree field of view bolstered by 120 degree up/down tilt makes exploration easy.
If it can be described as a downside, this is a smaller drone than some, so while there is an optional grabber arm, there is only a finite amount of power available. That said, it’s capable of over 12 Knots and the 3,000 lumen LEDs are a pretty solid show of power too.
Other accessories include a hydrophone and the camera is capable of accepting filters, which is great news for photographers. It’s not cheap, but is well packaged and seems the perfect hybrid between professional functionality and consumer-friendly design.
Developed in Norway, a country so adept at underwater design they put a motorway underwater, the Blueye Pioneer and Pro series are designed for tough conditions.
The drone uses a full range of internal gyros and accelerometers to handle positioning, and controls or maintains position using four 350W thrusters – which are, if necessary, user replaceable.
The thin control tether (75m but replaceable) terminates with a Wi-Fi router, to which you connect your phone or tablet to control the craft itself. You can use on-screen controls or a Bluetooth joypad of your own choosing if you prefer. Others can also connect with a separate DiveBuddy app to take in the view from the camera and even live stream it while you get on with the piloting.
Examining the exterior of the drone itself reveals the thought which has gone into the design; the vertical motor nozzles are recessed, making it possible to get in contact with the seabed without being stuck in the sand.
The six-LED light provides up to 3,300 lumens, making that 150m depth more than a numerical possibility. All this packs into a very convincing travel case, and tethers are available up to 250m. If these impressive specs aren’t enough for you, the Pro version can dive to 300m and has a gimbal to tilt the camera without changing course.
You can order the Blueye Robotics Pioneer via the Blueye Robotics website.
With eight thrusters connected through Dynamic Vector Control to an X-Box controller, this large Lithium battery-powered pro underwater drone is stunningly maneuverable, able to rotate in moments, almost as if it was in the air rather than fighting the friction of the deep.
The tether carries an analogue feed as well as digital video, so you can also connect a laptop to the base station to record HD video and take advantage of sophisticated control software with real-time feedback from sensors and offering waypoint plotting and more.
Despite having a digital feed, the pilot’s display – an 8.4-inch monitor in the lid of the control console – doesn’t suffer from the slight but significant lag that all digital video does. (Lag is the time taken to encode digital video for transmission then decode it for display; it is significant when making very high speed turns – this is why airborne racing drones use analogue cameras to fly FPV, but strap GoPros atop for the best quality recordings of their loops and turns).
The standard lights are dual 1,500 lumens, but the frame allows for more to be added; a 100m (330ft) tether is the standard, but custom reels up to 400m can be requested. There are other options available too, such as distance, bearing and latitude/longitude sensors.
You can order the RJE Oceanbotics SRV-8 underwater drone from the RJE Oceanbotics website.
While it’s definitely not an underwater drone, the PowerEgg X is worthy of a quick mention in this list since it’s not only one of the best drones, but is also capable of landing on the water’s surface and flying through a bit of rain and spray.
Not only that, but it hoists a 4K 60fps camera with it, so if your budget will run to it and there is room in your ship’s cabin, you can get yourself a great view of the depths and another from the skies above. Unlike an underwater drone, you’ll likely need to register with your aviation authority to operate this, but it’s a price worth paying.
• Read more: Powervision PowerEgg X drone review
With only two thrusters, this isn’t going to compete with the ‘grown-up’ products in terms of maneuverability, but that’s hardly an issue given the range.
To descend, the drone must keep moving forward (the thrusters are fixed at a slight down angle), so piloting in spirals is the solution. To return the thrusters can be operated backwards, or the duck antenna can be gently tugged.
Disappointingly the LED lights surrounding the camera needs to be switched on by physical switch before the drone is deployed – it’s screwed inside the ABS hull with a waterproof seal – and the 2.4GHz remote control isn’t of especially high quality, but you can clip in a phone for an FPV camera view and to record images.
It might be a bit rough round the edges, but the product is fun and should be something for a parent and child to bond over... at least until the NiMH battery conks out!
Everywhere has a beginning; in the aerial drone world children play with contra-rotating hovering balls (we've even seen Minion-shaped ones)... This entry-level underwater drone is designed for children 12 and up to use in the bath, boating pond or swimming pool (it isn’t salt-water safe), but in those environments it can be great for kids, and will provide them with lots of fun times. The manufacturer claims a 4m range for the radio controlled yellow submarine.
There is no camera, so the three LED lights at the front are just for fun (and if you look at the picture provides a bit of scale!) The controller is laid out to make it easy to use – there is one rocker switch to make the submarine up and down, and another to steer it right and left. The submarine itself if rechargeable giving you a claimed 3-4 minutes of operation - but you need to supply the four AA batteries for the remote