The autonomous craft is said to be the first that initiates and performs its own takeoffs and landings on water. The seaplane, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), advances the agency’s “persistent ocean surveillance” program.

“We studied sea birds seriously,” says Guy Meadows, director of the U-M Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratories. “They’re all about the same size — about 20 pounds with a 2-meter wingspan. Aerodynamically speaking, that’s a sweet spot for flying close to the water. Our plane is about the size of a pelican.” The onboard Global Positioning System alerts the craft when it has floated too far, triggering a takeoff sequence that gets the plane airborne in just 10 meters. Other GPS coordinates initiate the landing sequence.

University of Michigan researchers plan to outfit their seaplane with solar power and add more sensors.