An Unmanned Ship to Map the Oceans

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Eighty-one percent of the world’s oceans are still unmapped, but a California-based company is hoping to change that by using unmanned sailboats.

Saildrone, which is based in Alameda, just launched its first 72-footremote-controlled, unmanned sailboat, the Saildrone Surveyor, into San Francisco Bay.

Outfitted with advanced sonar equipment that will allow it to map the ocean more than 4 miles beneath the surface and have the capability to collect DNA samples, Surveyor will be able to transmit real-time data to scientists on land and remain at sea for as long as 12 months.

Currently, the vessel is going through final testing, but within weeks will set off on a roundtrip voyage to Hawaii to map the ocean. The saildrones will have significant advantages over the large, manned vessels that have historically collected ocean data.

One benefit of the saildrone is its environmentally friendly operation. “Ships are very, very dirty things,” said Richard Jenkins, founder and CEO of Saildrone, who estimates that a medium-sized ship burns between $2,000 and $5,000 a day in fuel.

The saildrones are wind- and solar-powered. They are also silent—they don’t create noise pollution that can harm marine animals—and are equipped with protocols to not use sonar around marine mammals, many of which use sonar to communicate.

Because Saildrone doesn’t sell its vessels—only the data it collects—researchers can save money, and data sets may become available to those who couldn’t afford to manned charter vessels.

It wasn’t easy to develop the drones. The sensors and machinery had to be condensed to fit inside a 72-foot vessel, and they have to withstand the harsh environment of the open ocean, including wind, waves, storms, hurricanes and salt corrosion. Since there is no crew on board to make repairs, everything has to be robust and bulletproof.

Because satellite bandwidth will limit the amount of data that can be transmitted, Saildrone is working to integrate all the sensors and camera equipment with machine learning software so it can separate critical information from unimportant data.

And because acoustic sensing can’t distinguish between various organisms, Saildrone worked with researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to collect DNA that sloughs off from marine organisms without having to catch and count fish. An environmental sample processor, or ESP, catches tiny bits of debris floating in the water. The ESP stores the material in a chemical preservative so the genetic material can be recovered and analyzed when the vessel returns to land.

Ocean mapping is critical for safety and navigation, but also for climate modeling, natural resource exploration and cultural and historical purposes, like shipwreck spotting.

With 70 percent of the earth covered by ocean, and 81 percent of it still unmapped, the saildrones have plenty left to discover.

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