Saildrone: a journey through the ocean of data


If you come across an unusual wing-like object in the ocean, don’t be alarmed. It is an unmanned sailboat or fully autonomous yacht that collects information and data related to the ocean. The first such successful project is the solar-powered sailing drone Saildrone.

Sailing drones gained wide popularity in 2018. At that time, such drones were used for the first time a large-scale study of the Arctic, which is known for its harsh climate and inhospitable disposition. Their main task was to study the ocean, as well as to make possible predictions and, if something happens, to warn about actual or potential threats. The first Saildrone Explorer, 7 meters long, was sent to previously unexplored territories. Working in extremely low temperatures, 15-meter waves and winds of more than 100 kilometers per hour, he was able to collect data related to climatic and weather processes, ecology and features of underwater flora and fauna.

As expected, its long-term work was also economically beneficial. After all, studying hard-to-reach places from space is less informative, and equipping a large research vessel is estimated at millions of dollars. But the autonomous Saildrone is a very affordable and reliable way, it can travel tens of thousands of nautical miles, and is in the ocean for up to 12 months. A tough and durable carbon fiber sail mounted on an unmanned yacht works like an airplane wing, and the counterweight at the end of the spar prevents the sailboat from capsizing. In addition, Saildrone uses wind and solar power. Due to the wind, the sail sets the ship in motion, and all the devices on board – navigation systems, sensors – are recharged from the sun thanks to numerous solar panels integrated on the hull and sails.

Already in January 2021, the largest version of the Saildrone Surveyor was launched with a length of 22 meters, with a wing height of 18 meters and a keel of 4 meters. New sonar equipment was installed on board, which will allow mapping the seabed at a depth of 7000 meters! Indeed, until now, more was known about the topography of the Moon and Mars than about what is in the bowels of the oceans and seas. For example, the shape of the bottom is critical to understanding the circulation of currents. The effects of tides on climate, tsunami wave propagation, underwater geology and resource exploration are all made available for study by Saildrone.

So how does it work? Saildrone can get the sailing route even remotely. Moving from point A to point B, he is guided by GPS. With a range of built-in sensors, it can receive data such as air and water temperature, humidity, pressure and solar radiation levels, oxygen content, as well as wind speed and direction, wave height and frequency. Then, using built-in algorithms, it analyzes the information received. As a result, the system sends signals in real time about possible natural disasters, about the appearance of strong winds and waves, the danger of a tsunami or about the first signs of accidents, for example, an oil spill. The drone can also perform very specific tasks that will be useful for the fishing industry: send data on the movement of mammals, measure CO2 levels or count the number of fish in a specific corner of the ocean. Speaking of prospects, it is planned that the drone will be able to search for oil in hard-to-reach places.

Interesting, the Saildrone’s sensors also automatically recognize objects in real time. Over the past three years, tens of millions of images of open waters and coastlines have been collected. And then, using artificial intelligence, this data was combined with information from other sources (radar, AIS, acoustics), obtaining a more complete picture of the studied area of the ocean.

No doubts, the development of unmanned technologies can improve the understanding of the seas and oceans. It is possible that ten years from now, thousands of autonomous vehicles, such as the Saildrone, will be able to navigate the world’s waters, using satellites to transmit the collected information and bringing incredible benefits to humanity.

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