Drones at sea: Unmanned vehicles to expand data collection from far-flung locales

Boats that never cause anyone to become seasick? They exist, on behalf of science.


A fleet of Saildrones in Alamedia, Calif., awaits to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean.
A fleet of Saildrones in Alamedia, Calif., awaits to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean. (Courtesy of Saildrone Inc.)

In fact, during the next four months, NOAA scientists will deploy these unmanned ocean vehicles — Saildrones — to hard-to-reach places such as the Arctic and the tropical Pacific to help better understand how changes in the ocean affect weather, climate, fisheries and marine mammals.

In mid-July, scientists will send off the first unmanned, wind and solar-powered vehicles from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, with two sailing north through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean and another transiting the Bering Sea. The remote-controlled vehicles will track melting ice, measure carbon dioxide in the ocean, and count fish, seals, and whales.  

“We want to understand how changes in the Arctic may affect large-scale climate and weather systems as well as ecosystems that support valuable fish stocks," says Jessica Cross, an oceanographer at NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, who is using the unmanned system to study how the Arctic Ocean is absorbing carbon dioxide.

A third unmanned Saildrone will survey more than 3,100 nautical miles in the Bering Sea for walleye pollock, Northern fur seals that prey on the fish and North Pacific right whales. NOAA Fisheries scientists will also attach video cameras to fur seals to record feeding and verify the species and sizes of fish that fur seals are eating.

“We are excited to be able to use the video to see the ocean from a fur seal’s point of view,” says Carey Kuhn, an ecologist with NOAA Fisheries’Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Surveying the tropical Pacific Ocean

In September, scientists will launch two more unmanned systems from Alameda, Calif., on a six-month, 8,000-nautical-mile, round-trip mission to the equator to improve the Tropical Pacific Observing System (TPOS).  TPOS provides real-time data used by the U.S. and partner nations to forecast weather and climate, including El Nino.

“Drones will not replace other oceanic research systems,” says Cross. “Ships, buoys and satellites are still necessary, but these unmanned sailboats offer researchers expansive views of some of the furthest corners of the world's oceans.”

And the best part? No motion sickness medication required.

For more, see this story from NOAA Research.


Media contact

Monica Allen, 301-713-0214