Friday, March 23, 2018
Summer of sailing drones

Summer of sailing drones

Unmanned ocean vehicles are collecting data from the Arctic to the tropics

Over the next four months, NOAA scientists will launch unmanned ocean vehicles, called Saildrones, from the Arctic to the tropical Pacific Ocean to help better understand how changes in the ocean are affecting weather, climate, fisheries and marine mammals. The wind and solar-powered research vehicles that resemble a sailboat will travel thousands of miles across the ocean, reaching some areas never before surveyed with such specialized technology. 

Probing Alaskan ocean waters 

In mid-July, scientists will send off the first unmanned sailing vehicles from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, with two sailing north through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean and another transiting the Bering Sea. Traversing Alaska’s inhospitable waters, the remotely-operated vehicles will track melting ice, measure the ocean's levels of carbon dioxide, and count fish, seals, and whales to better understand their behavior and population. 

For the first time, the vehicles will journey through the Bering Strait into the Arctic with a newly adapted system to measure CO2 concentrations. “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 (PMEL), who is using the unmanned system to study how the Arctic Ocean is absorbing carbon dioxide. 

Sailing drones

Sailing drones

Sailing drones loaded with sensors zip across San Francisco Bay. NOAA will launch these new unmanned vehicles to collect data in the Arctic, Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean over the next four months. Credit: Saildrone Inc.
A third unmanned vehicle will survey more than 3,100 nautical miles in the Bering Sea for walleye pollock, Northern fur seals that prey on them and the elusive North Pacific right whale. This work will build on research conducted during 2016, including a study of fur seal feeding rates. Carey Kuhn, ecologist with NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, and her team will also attach video cameras on 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 Kuhn. “Critical information about fur seals is still lacking and using the video camera and unmanned sailing vehicle will help us better understand this declining population.” 

Surveying the tropical Pacific Ocean 

In September, scientists will launch two more unmanned systems from Alameda, California, on a six-month, 8,000 nautical mile round trip mission to the equator and back to improve the Tropical Pacific Observing System (TPOS). TPOS provides real-time data used by the US and partner nations to forecast weather and climate, including El Nino. The unmanned sailing vehicles will take part in a larger field study with NASA, and visit mooring sites along the array of observing buoys. “Saildrones can do adaptive sampling like research ships, but at a fraction of the cost,” says Meghan Cronin, PMEL oceanographer.  “We’ll be testing whether this new, enhanced tool can provide a suite of measurements at a quality that matches research ships and proven mooring technology. If this is the case, they may become a powerful tool to provide key observations for weather forecasts.” 

NOAA’s PMEL began a partnership with Saildrone, Inc. in 2014 through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to develop unmanned surface vehicles that collect high quality oceanic and atmospheric observations.  NOAA’s PMEL provides engineering expertise on sensors and sampling techniques and Saildrone, Inc. provides unmanned system hardware and software expertise. 

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

For more information, contact:

Monica Allen, NOAA Research, 301-734-1123,

Maggie Mooney-Seus, NOAA Fisheries - Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 206-526-4348,



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