Ocean research drones set sail for South Pacific

Ocean research drones set sail for South Pacific

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

The 22-foot-long wind and solar-powered research drones will spend six months and travel 8,000 nautical miles on a round-trip mission to the equator and back to improve the Tropical Pacific Observing System (TPOS), which provides real-time data used by the US and partner nations to forecast weather and climate. Equipped with a suite of sensors, the drones – launched on September 1 from a dock in Alameda, CA – will take part in a larger field study with NASA, and visit mooring sites along an array of observing buoys.

“Saildrones can do adaptive sampling like research ships, but at a fraction of the cost,” says Meghan Cronin, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (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.”

If successful, the improved data collection from Saildrones could help improve forecasts for tropical Pacific weather phenomena that can strongly impact North American weather patterns. The Saildrones are the result of a partnership between NOAA and Saildrone Inc. (Alameda, CA), which provides unmanned system hardware and software expertise to NOAA’s engineering expertise on sensors and sampling techniques.

In August, two previously launched Saildrones successfully sailed through the difficult conditions presented by the choppy Bering Strait after a 1600-km trip on their way into the Arctic. The remotely-operated vehicles will track melting ice, measure the ocean’s levels of CO2, and count various sea life to better understand their behavior and population.

“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 PMEL, who is using the unmanned system to study how the Arctic Ocean is absorbing carbon dioxide.

A third vehicle is surveying more than 3,100 nautical miles in the Bering Sea and is intended to build on previous research that included a study of fur seal feeding rates. It is watching for walleye pollock, the Northern fur seals that prey on them, and the North Pacific right whale.

“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.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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