Drones have become commonplace in our skies. Businesses have started to use them to deliver products, photographers are using them to take pictures from heights before only attained by standard aircraft, and we even have one flying over the surface of Mars. Most of us have seen them flying through the air, but did you know they are also being used on the water? Yes, they are called Saildrones and they can aid scientists in their research.
The company called “Saildrone” provides a service that is used by many in the scientific community who are researching various subjects related to the oceans of the world. Here’s how they describe their company. “Saildrones designs and manufactures wind and solar powered autonomous surface vehicles called Saildrones, which make cost-effective ocean data collection possible at scale. We are building the world’s largest high resolution ocean data sets, working with governments and private companies around the globe. We believe that better inputs in planetary models in turn yield better outputs and that the new insights gained in weather forecasting, carbon cycling, global fishing and climate change will have tremendous impact on humanity. ”
Here’s their explanation of how it began. “The Saildrone wing technology was evolved over a 10-year period, driven by the research of Saildrone founder Richard Jenkins as he battled to break the wind powered, land speed record. He ultimately achieved that record in 2009 (126.2 mph) before applying the wing technology to an unmanned sailboat which became Saildrone. The quest for speed and control, led to the innovation of a precise but low-powered wing system that makes the Saildrone possible. Efficiently harnessing wind-power to maximize the range and endurance of our drones is a key differentiator between Saildrone and other autonomus vehicles.”
An historic event took place on September 30, 2021 when a Saildrone sailed its way into a hurricane. This first ever event could help revolutionize how we monitor tropical cyclones. Of course we know that the Hurricane Hunters fly their planes in a pattern that moves in and around the eye of the storm on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean to gather valuable information concerning the strength of the storm and its movements. This first was that a saildrone sailed into Category 4 Hurricane Sam and shot video of its trip even with sustained winds of 145 mph and 50 foot waves. Here is some of the video shot by the saildrone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQM_03zuSAI
In an October 1,2021 article published in Physics.org (phsy.org) the details of this unique event were described. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Saildrone are piloting five specially designed saildrones in the Atlantic Ocean to gather data around the clock to help understand the physical processes of Hurricanes. When you compare the two previous pictures of the saildrone notice the difference in the shape of the sail wing. The specially outfitted one has a hurricane wing designed for more stability to withstand the hurricane force winds. This specialized drone records the same data as the dropsondes that fall from the Hurricane Hunter aircraft: wind speed and direction, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, etc., but the readings are taken right at the surface of the ocean.
Quoting NOAA scientist Greg Foltz in the article “We expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes.” He went on to explain “Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds strengthen in a matter of hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities.” The scientists hope that the data collected from these unmanned saildrones will help improve the already existing computer models.
Now we’ll take a closer look at how the saildrones function and the equipment they have onboard that makes this kind or research possible.
These Saildrones are unique due to the fact that they are autonomous, designed for long range and long duration missions, up to 12 months long, to collect ocean and atmospheric data. They can be launched from a dock and programmed to return to the same place when their task is completed. Drones can be held in a stationary position for long periods of time or run a complex survey pattern over a much larger area of the ocean. You might wonder how the data is received, but that is one of themes important features of the drones. They data can be collected and stored by the sensors or sent back to the base by use of a satellite transmission system.
The company has assembled a diagram of the Saildrone detailing the type and location of the sensor data being collected. Below is the list of the sensors with number and color coding to show what they are measuring.
As you can see by the diagram above Saildrones are capable of collecting data from the atmosphere above the ocean water (red circles), at the ocean surface (green circles), and under the ocean surface (blue circles). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has increased its emphasis on studying the ocean-atmosphere interactions as to how they relate to weather forecasting in general and the development of hurricanes as just one specific example. The new knowledge we may gain with better understanding of how the the atmospheric disturbances interact with the ocean could unlock the keys to help better understand what is actually happening with our climate and why.
There are others in the technical community who are working to improve data collection and I’m sure we will be hearing more from them in the future.
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