These cool looking little bots are part of a fleet of floating water sensors built by The Lagrangian Sensor Systems Laboratory (LSSL) at UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) and the California Department of Water Resources.
In an emergency such as a levee break, flood, or spill, they can be deployed to gather information in a way that is completely impossible with stationary sensors. These 17″ tall bots can steer with the help of their twin props and communicate water quality information back to the base via cellular communication and short wave radio. They describe the resulting data as being like a “google traffic map” showing speed, depth, and contamination of the water.
There’s a ton of detail on their site, including breakdowns of how the software and hardware are put together. There’s even a bit of the evolution of the hardware showing the abandoned previous models.