Autonomous Saildrone maps miles of seafloor in successful maiden voyage
As it stands, something like 80 percent of the seafloor remains unmapped, despite oceans covering 70 percent of the globe. That would be a lot of terrain for humans to survey, but lately we're seeing how sophisticated, ocean-going robots might do most of the heavy lifting. One particularly interesting example is the Saildrone Surveyor, which has just successfully proved its mapping capabilities across a maiden voyage between San Francisco and Hawaii.
US company Saildrone first emerged in 2018 with a 23-ft unmanned surface vehicle, which is propelled by the wind and uses solar energy to power onboard electronics that include marine and atmospheric sensors. With the ability to operate autonomously or be controlled remotely from shore for up to 12 months at a time, these long-term surveying capabilities were soon put to work by researchers in Australia to explore the Southern Ocean.
Introduced earlier this year, the Saildrone Surveyor is a bigger, 72-ft version of the original that is designed to map the seafloor of the deep ocean. The uncrewed vessel is kitted out with sonar equipment that enables it to map the seafloor to depths of 23,000 ft (7,000 m), while also collecting DNA samples from the water column for researchers to analyze.
The company has been conducting sea trials of the Saildrone Surveyor in the San Francisco Bay area, and recently announced a mission that will send a small fleet into hurricane territory to study the extreme weather events from up close. Then around a month ago, the autonomous vehicle set off for its first voyage in the open ocean.
This journey took a total of 28 days and took the Saildrone Surveyor from San Francisco to Hawaii, covering a distance of 2,250 nautical miles (4,167 km). As it did so, the vessel used its suite of sensors to interrogate the water column and map some 6,400 square nautical miles (22,000 sq km) of seafloor.
“The data quality from the Surveyor is of very high quality, as good as anything we have seen from a ship,” said Larry Mayer from the University of New Hampshire, part of an external team analyzing the drone's data. “Due to the wind-powered nature of the vehicle, it is very quiet, and this enables the very accurate acoustic measurements needed to map to these depths.”
Saildrone will build on the success of this maiden voyage by building out a new fleet of Surveyors in US ship yards. Ultimately, the company aspires to map the globe's entire ocean floor in the next 10 years.
You can hear from some of the team involved in the maiden voyage by hitting the source link below.