Autonomous Saildrones are the new weapon in the fight against climate change

Drones don’t just fly through the air – they also sail the Pacific Ocean as a new scientific weapon in the fight against climate change. The hope is that by mapping the ocean floor, collecting meteorological and ocean data, and counting populations of fish and wildlife, Saildrones will measure the changes that are currently taking place on our planet.

Climate change is reshaping planet Earth, causing sea levels to rise, arctic ice to melt and global temperatures to rise. According to NASA, the global average sea level has risen by seven inches over the past 100 years. Arctic summer sea ice has shrunk to its lowest levels on record, and the average global temperature has risen 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000, posing a threat to life as we know it.

An autonomous Saildrone sails under the Golden Gate Bridge en route to the Pacific Ocean.


Saildrones are made by a company based in Alameda, California, which bears the same name. Looking a bit like a futuristic kayak with pontoons (they are 23 feet long), the bright red Saildrones have a sail with solar panels (they are powered by the sun and are blown by the wind) and a d-shaped tail. ‘plane. Equipped with a number of data sensors, radar equipment and high-resolution cameras, they monitor factors such as ocean currents, wind speed, solar radiation, sea and air temperature. , relative humidity and carbon dioxide emissions and retransmit them via satellite to Saildrone headquarters.

I spoke with Brian connon, Saildrone’s vice president of ocean mapping, from an abandoned naval base where the company’s drones are manufactured and deployed in the Pacific Ocean.

“For seven or eight years we have been using [Saildrones] collect ocean data and help inform our science on topics such as climate change, meteorology and oceanography, ”he said. [carbon dioxide] is it ingested by the ocean or is it exhaled by the ocean? We can measure this flux of carbon in the atmosphere, just above the surface of the sea. “

Saildrones are even equipped with artificial intelligence so they can maneuver on their own and conduct missions anywhere in the world without refueling or human assistance for months. Their ability to travel in harsh environments like the Arctic makes them incredibly valuable in terms of crew safety and cost efficiency.

Connon said Saildron customers can follow a drone’s progress online in real time, see the photos it takes and analyze the weather and ocean observations it is making at that time.

“AI is really about programming them to go to a site and then conduct a mission,” he said. “Much of this is very pre-planned by us [at headquarters], then the Saildrone kicks in and does its job, and we sort of monitor it through satellite communications. ”

Saildrones use single-beam and multibeam sonar bathymetry to map the ocean landscape, offering a detailed view of the ocean floor. The Surveyor, a huge autonomous Saildrone, is preparing to take on the challenge of mapping all of the planet’s oceans, which represent more than 70% of the Earth’s surface.


The Saildrone Surveyor is ready to map the ocean floor.


“It is equipped with sonar capable of recording the depths of the bottom,” Cannon said. And we hope to use it to fill all the gaps in what we call bathymetry around the world. ”

Saildrones can also help control overfishing by counting fish populations using sonar technology and informing governments of how many fish can be caught each season. Connon described how they could count king crab.

“They have tagged a number of king crabs and can watch them scurrying around the ocean floor,” he said. “We can use a Saildrone to locate these acoustic beacons, then listen from the surface and see where these king crabs are going.”

Saildrone is also experimenting with a new concept called knowledge of the maritime domain, in which a small fleet of drones is deployed to monitor and patrol a small maritime region. Saildrone staged protests in Hawaii in October 2020, dispatching a group of drones to identify fishing boats, monitor ocean conditions, and high-resolution watch for illegal activities such as drug trafficking and illegal fishing. They can relay images of suspicious boats that may not have appropriate identification numbers or identify boats that may be in distress.

The more than 100 Saildrones built to date have proven invaluable in helping to correlate satellite data with NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites and to confirm information collected 24/7 from outer space and the ocean surface. They also set records. In 2019, a Saildrone circled the Southern Ocean, traveling more than 1,400 miles around Antarctica, observing the outgassing of carbon dioxide during the winter. Later that year, a Saildrone became the first and fastest unmanned vehicle to cross the Atlantic in either direction, completing the journey in just 68 days.


Saildrone Founder and CEO Richard Jenkins.


Founder and CEO of Saildrone Richard jenkins is no stranger to world records itself. In 2009, he broke the record for unmotivated land speed in the Mojave Desert, traveling 200 km / h in a wind-powered vehicle designed by Greenbird., using the same wing design that would become the inspiration for today’s Saildrone.

Connon is optimistic about the future of his business. “We’re in a former air station hangar, so we’re reusing government buildings as a US owned and operated business doing great things for the Earth,” he said. “We do things in a low carbon way, and we try to help everyone understand the Earth. I think it’s a really big mission for a company to be able to do that.

Watch the YouTube version of this story, embedded above, for more information on Saildrone.

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