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Scientists deploy autonomous sailing vessels to study whales, fish and seals

Scientists deploy autonomous sailing vessels to study whales, fish and seals

Unmanned technologies open new frontier in ocean science

NOAA Research and NOAA Fisheries have teamed up with academic and private sector partners to test innovative technologies that, if successful, will enable researchers to gather information on ocean conditions and marine species in remote areas of the ocean that are costly to reach and difficult to study. 

Scientists are using a novel research platform that resembles a windsurfer, called a Saildrone, developed by Saildrone, Inc. Scientists and engineers equipped two of these autonomous, wind-powered vessels with newly designed technologies to collect needed oceanographic data and information on endangered and commercially important species living in remote areas of the Bering Sea.

Watch a YouTube broadcast that was presented on June 3 by NOAA scientists about the Saildrone mission in the Bering Sea and hear the scientists' answers to questions from the public and media.

“We have high hopes for this mission – that it could mark a new chapter in ocean research,” said Christopher Sabine, director, NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Last year, we successfully implemented a three-month Saildrone mission in the Bering Sea to remotely collect data on physical oceanographic conditions via satellite in near real-time. This summer, we are testing other new technologies in the hopes of demonstrating their efficacy for remotely collecting critical biological data.”

“As pioneers in this new research frontier we’re seeking to discover more cost-effective ways to augment our existing research efforts and gather additional biological information in places that are difficult to navigate with a full-sized research vessel,” said Douglas DeMaster, research and center director, NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

This unprecedented research mission began with the Saildrone launches from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in late May and will continue until September. The mission will test new technologies to:

  • collect near real-time oceanographic data for U.S waters that will enable scientists to track environmental changes that may be occurring there; 
  • attempt to locate and gather acoustic data on marine mammals, among them the rarest whale inhabiting U.S. waters, the North Pacific right whale;
  • test the use of a small-scale acoustic device that emits sound waves underwater to gather hard to obtain information on remote spawning areas for Alaska’s most important commercial fish stock; walleye pollock; and
  • conduct detailed prey surveys within the foraging range of a declining population of northern fur seals.

The mission unites scientists and engineers from NOAA  with the University of Washington, the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Ocean, Saildrone, Inc., Simrad AS/Kongsberg Maritime and Greeneridge Sciences, Inc. The marine mammal research is possible due to support from the Marine Mammal Commission.

Regular updates on the mission will be posted on both NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Innovative Technology for Arctic Exploration website and NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center website throughout the project.

For more information contact:  

Monica Allen, NOAA Research 301-734-1123,

Adi Hanein, NOAA Research, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory 206-526-6810,

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

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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