CSIRO sets sail with ocean-going drones

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The Saildrones undergoing trials off San Francisco.
The Saildrones undergoing trials off San Francisco.

Unmanned craft to be used to collect data in the Southern Ocean.

A small fleet of unmanned drones will be setting sail to explore the Southern Ocean in the name of science, the result of a new partnership between the CSIRO and San Francisco-based ocean technology start-up, Saildrone.

The five-year partnership between Saildrone and CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere group will see the drones dispatched to collect data about a range of ocean conditions such as sea-surface temperature, salinity, and ocean carbon. It is the first time they have been used in Australian waters and help to expand CSIRO's network of marine and climate monitoring systems.

The solar- and wind-powered vessels can be at sea for up to 12 months at a time and can be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world. They are equipped with both automatic identification systems (AIS) and ship avoidance systems to alert and avoid other ocean users.

CSIRO research group leader Andreas Marouchos said the partnership would see the organisation manage a fleet of three Saildrones deployed from the CSIRO in Hobart.

“This research partnership comes at a critical time for the marine environment, and at a time when technological innovation in the marine sector is booming,” he said.

“Saildrones are long-range research platforms that can be sent to remote locations for an extended period of time, delivering real-time data back to scientists that was previously impossible to collect.”

“The devices gather fundamental information about our oceans and climate using a powerhouse of ocean chemistry, meteorological and marine acoustic sensors.”

Australian Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins said CSIRO provided a unique opportunity for marine research collaboration in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Saildrone and CSIRO share the same passion for innovation and engineering to help solve some of the most challenging problems facing the world,” he said.

“Autonomy is a key technology for accessing the southern oceans, which are understudied due to the rough seas and the limited number of vessels that regularly pass through the region.”

The ability to remotely control the Saildrones means they can be re-tasked quickly to meet CSIRO’s science needs, providing a new way to measure ocean conditions associated with events like marine heat waves or toxic algal blooms that in the past would have required extensive planning and expense for a ship and crew.

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