Unmanned Ocean Vehicles
Unmanned Ocean Vehicles

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 will travel thousands of miles across the ocean, reaching some areas never before surveyed with such specialised technology.

In mid-July, scientists will send off the first unmanned sailing vehicles from Alaska, with two sailing north through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean and another crossing 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 behaviour and population.

Surveying more than 3,100 nautical miles in the Bering Sea, the drones will collect data on 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.”

Fur Seal
Fur Seals taken by Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA Corps.

In September, scientists will launch two more unmanned systems, this time from California, on a six-month 8000 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.”

Every Saildrone carries a comprehensive  suite of instruments. Amongst other things these can measure wind speed & direction, sunlight, air temperature, humidity, air pressure, wave height, ocean current, dissolved oxygen, water temperature and salinity.

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

Further Reading

Summer of sailing drones, NOAA