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Sailing for scientific success in the Bering Sea
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Sailing for scientific success in the Bering Sea

PMEL Saildrones successfully complete first test mission in cold waters

by Caroline Mosley, NOAA Research Communications

Testing new scientific technology is a risky business. In the case of two Saildrones released in the eastern Bering Sea over a month ago, the risk has led to big rewards. Equipped with a suite of scientific sensors, the unmanned surface vehicles are performing beyond researchers’ expectations during their first test run in cold waters. Each Saildrone has collected over 40 million measurements over the course of the planned 2.5 month test mission.

In only eighteen months, the Saildrones went from sailing the warm waters between San Francisco and Hawaii to braving high winds and waves in frigid waters with high quality sensors. The initial success of the unmanned sailing scientific platforms shows promise in enhancing how researchers collect data in the most extreme reaches of the ocean.

“The Saildrones and sensors are being tested in some of the most punishing seas on the planet," said Christian Meinig, Director of Engineering at PMEL, “So far they’ve worked exceptionally well.”

April 23 and June 2, the two Saildrones weathered the eastern Bering Sea and traveled 1,850 to 2,300 miles, respectively. Sailing at a little over 2 knots (2.3 mph), each Saildrone collected nearly 3,000 measurements for every nautical mile (1.15 mile). A series of comparative measurements between NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson and the Saildrones around April 30 demonstrated that the Saildrones were collecting high quality measurements that can be used for a variety of analyses.

The principles of sailing combined with high quality data collection are the basis of a unique collaboration between NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at the University of Washington, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Saildrone Inc. The Saildrone is one technology, of fifteen, that is part of the Innovative Technology for Arctic Exploration (ITAE) program based at PMEL.

The speed, sensor capabilities and efficiency of Saildrones allows for more flexible deployments that can cover greater distances. Using unmanned surface vehicles, ship time is reduced, lowering the cost of scientific expeditions while maintaining a high amount of data collection. The Saildrones use solar-panels to recharge their batteries and continue to collect samples even during overcast days, allowing for continuous measurements.

Constantly shifting conditions make scientific research difficult and dangerous in the Arctic, but Saildrones are providing a way for researchers to get closer to sea ice than ever before. In late May, the Saildrones encountered a region of fresher water, indicating recent ice melt. The onboard sensors took thousands of measurements to map out the sea ice retreat associated with changes in the sea surface environment. Investigating regions of retreating sea ice is of special interest to researchers, as an overall decline in sea ice cover has been linked to climate change in a region that researchers know little about.  

The Bering Sea test mission is only the beginning for the Saildrones. PMEL researchers hope to expand the sensors for these type of unmanned vehicles and continue to explore the changes in one of the world’s most delicate yet harsh ecosystems.

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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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