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A Saildrone equipped with sensors such as those used on NOAA missions. Image credit: hoto credit: Saildrone Inc.

Drones are changing the way we look at coastlines.

In a conference call on Thursday about the use of drones in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jessica N. Cross, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, talked about the use of Saildrone, a sailboat-sized, commercially produced UAV in monitoring populations of fish and other information about the changing oceans in the Arctic.

The Saildrone, developed by Saildrone Inc. of California, is a 20-foot long, wind-and-solar powered vehicle that can be launched from a dock just like a boat. This is one of the capabilities that made it appealing to NOAA; Cross said that its ability to launch this way helps to save money on the purchase and operational costs of a research ship. It’s also fast, 2-3 knots on average or over 7 knots with a strong and favorable wind, and robust, able to hold 200 lbs of payload. That’s 7 to 8 times as much as other oceangoing autonomous vehicles, Cross said.

Being able to fit a large amount of sensors on the autonomous drone also allows for new mission opportunities, including reconnaissance (the drone was used in cooperation with other vehicles and other organizations), sustained observations of large-scale weather patterns such as El Niño, and movable observation networks made of ships, moored sensors, and other vehicles.

Since the Saildrone is classified as a vessel, it still needs a permit in order to enter into a habitat of an endangered marine animal, but NOAA coordinates with other government organizations and research groups in order to stay out of areas where it might disturb the local wildlife.

Of particular interest in the mission in the Bering Sea was the Pacific right whale, the rarest whale in United States waters; walleye pollock, Alaska’s most critical commercial fish; and northern fur seals.

When the partnership between the NOAA and the Saildrone in Alaska was first announced in June, Douglas DeMaster, research and center director at NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center said, "As pioneers in this new research frontier we're seeking to discover more cost-effective ways to augment our existing research efforts and gather additional biological information in places that are difficult to navigate with a full-sized research vessel.”

Last year, NOAA tested the Saildrone during a three-month period in the Bering Sea, where it was used to collect data on oceanographic conditions in near real-time via a connected satellite. 

The Saildrone technology was originally designed by company founder Richard Jenkins to break the wind-powered land speed record. From its tests on land, it moved to practical applications in the water. It did break the record, reaching 126.2 miles per hour in 2009.

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