Saildrones return from the Arctic after milestone research mission

 Courtesy: Saildrone, Inc.
Courtesy: Saildrone, Inc. (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 22, 2019 at 5:41 PM AKST
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After covering more than 36,000 nautical miles and going where no drones have gone before, a fleet of five research saildrones has returned to shore in Dutch Harbor, while one wayward machine was recovered in Utqiagvik.

Saildrones are solar and wind-powered research vessels controlled from thousands of miles away. Scientists and engineers with NOAA, in partnership with university researchers and private industry, have been expanding the use of the technology over the last five years, yet the 2019 season was a first for several facets of arctic exploration.

"What we've never done before is really push the limits of these saildrones, and in particular understanding sea ice," said Chris Meinig, Director of Engineering at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab. "We tried to get those saildrones as close to the ice edge as we could, and what we did was in fact we got them stuck in the ice."

Scientists are looking to learn more about temperature distribution, salinity and other factors that impact sea ice and why in some places it still hasn't formed.

"What we also folded in was local data. So we took a lot of local knowledge and worked with Northern Slope communities to understand what they're seeing, what they're experiencing and helping us fold that in with the scientific data that we're seeing in real time," Meinig said.

During the mission, some saildrones accidentally became stuck in the ice. Each time, the team was able to get the machine out of the potentially costly situation, but one saildrone lost control of its rudder. It did not make the return voyage all the way back to Dutch Harbor but was successfully recovered in Utqiagvik.

The arctic saildrone mission involved several scientists with different disciplines. In addition to the sea ice studies, the mission also sought to track and better understand a depleted population of fur seals and measure carbon dioxide absorption and variability in the ocean. One saildrone was dedicated to tracking walleye Pollock in the Bering Sea and to test how effectively their distribution, depths and range can be measured from a drone. Another project using saildrones tracked red king crab.

Meinig said the mission involved more than 70 people.

"We've got the local community of Dutch Harbor involved, we've got folk in Barrow and Wainwright. A lot of people in Nome are clued into what's going on around here. So we've really built the tools to help us do this. Now the question is can we sustain it, can we find the funding so that local people understand more about what's going on," Meinig said.

Although the machines transmitted data in real time, that information is still being analyzed.

"The most immediate impact is that we've proven these scientific tools now," Meinig said. "We haven't had the time to go through all the data yet, so there's no real product that I can tell you that it's going to resolve, but this will result in scientific breakthroughs."

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