NOAA is Gathering Data with Captainless Sailboats

Drone technology sets sail

Step aside, aircraft drones, and make room for Saildrones—the unmanned ocean vehicles the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists are deploying to gather data from the sea.

These drones are wind- and solar-powered, remotely-operated and look like sailboats, according to NOAA. The Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory originally partnered with Saildrone, Inc. in 2014 via a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to develop unmanned surface vehicles. PMEL provides the engineering on sensors and sampling techniques, and Saildrone, Inc. delivers unmanned system hardware and software expertise.

The Saildrones will be launched from the Arctic to the tropical Pacific Ocean to research how changes in the ocean are affecting weather, climate, fisheries and marine life. The first few will be deployed in mid-July from the Dutch Harbor in Alaska. They intend to travel thousands of nautical miles and allow scientists to reach areas of the ocean that have never been surveyed.

To do so, the drones are equipped with a new system to measure the ocean’s levels of carbon dioxide concentration, and will track ice melting and count fish, seals and whales to understand behavior and population. Scientists will also be able to use the drones to attach video cameras onto fur seals to monitor the declining population.

According to NOAA, additional Saildrones will be sent off in September from Alameda, California, on a 6-month journey to the equator and back to improve the Tropical Pacific Observing System. The U.S. uses TPOS for real-time climate and weather forecast data. These drones will also be part of a larger field study with NASA, called the Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study, which samples salinity data in the eastern Tropical Pacific.

The Saildrones can do the adaptive samplings traditional research ships do, but much more cost efficiently, and NOAA will be testing if the quality of measurements produced is also up to par. If that’s the case, the drones could become a more valuable tool for providing observations for weather forecasts.

And though the unmanned sailboats will not replace other oceanic research methods like ships, buoys and satellites, they will offer a more expansive view of the further and less-reachable parts of the ocean.