Apr 16

An Armada of Saildrones Could Revolutionize Environmental Science

Engineer and adventurer Richard Jenkins has made oceangoing robots that could revolutionize fishing, drilling, and environmental science. His aim: a thousand of them.
Every spring, thousands of great white sharks begin a mysterious migration. From up and down America’s West Coast, they head straight for a Colorado-size patch of the Pacific about halfway between San Diego and Hawaii. Once there, they hang for months at what marine biologists call the White Shark Cafe, frolicking and diving 1,500 feet or more. For decades, we didn’t know much more about what they do there—or why. This year, we should get some answers, thanks to a pair of saildrones.
Each drone is a 23-foot neon-orange sailboat that catches wind with a solid wing more durable than a cloth sail. As the name implies, they’re seaworthy, autonomous robots, though a human pilot can take control remotely. In mid-March, two saildrones packed with sensors, cameras, and scientific instruments launched from a dock in the Bay Area city of Alameda, gliding past Alcatraz and beneath the Golden Gate Bridge to begin a three-week, 1,200-mile journey to the Shark Cafe.
By early April, the saildrones arrived and began picking up signals from a group of 37 sharks that researchers had tagged with acoustic transmitters. The drones pinpointed the sharks’ locations, then sailed back and forth, using sonar to see what they were up to. Via satellite, the drones relayed images and other data to Barbara Block, a Stanford marine biologist who started planning a research voyage to the Cafe three years ago. Block has studied these sharks for much of her career, but this was her first detailed look at their vast deepwater playground.
The robotic vessels come from an Alameda startup called Saildrone Inc. Backed by $90 million in venture capital, Saildrone is a big bet on the market for information about the ocean. Founded in 2012, the company has spent the past few years proving its 1,200-pound craft can withstand months of punishing waves to churn out precise data far more cheaply than a traditional research vessel. Within four years, it wants a fleet of 1,000 drones scanning the world’s oceans more or less constantly. The objective: salable insight into the environment, weather, fishing, shipping, and oil and gas exploration.


Read the full story at Bloomberg Businessweek