Improving Natutical Charts in the Arctic

An 8,000 nautical mile mission from San Francisco to the Canadian border to provide modern, accurate mapping data of Alaska’s North Slope and the Bering Sea.


Saildrone Explorers

2,000 nm

Distance to operation area

72,404 nm

Cumulative distance sailed

Access Data Set


The Northwest Passage, the Arctic Ocean route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is a treacherous journey along the west coast of Greenland, weaving through Canada’s Arctic islands, and then southwest along Alaska’s North Slope and through the Bering Strait. The transit distance between Asia and the US West Coast and Europe via the Northwest Passage is estimated to be around 1,000 nautical miles shorter than through the Panama Canal, but in the past, even in summer, it was mostly blocked by impenetrable sea ice. 

Today, due to climate changes in the Arctic and a retreating ice cap, the Northwest Passage could become an economically viable shipping route, however, it remains very shallow and dangerous, and chart data is limited and antiquated.


Four Saildrone Explorers collected single-beam bathymetry to support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s effort to provide modern, accurate mapping data of the Bering Sea and Alaska’s North Slope. The vehicles sailed a zig-zag pattern to identify the 20-meter and 50-meter isobaths (contour lines), delineating a virtual lane to be mapped in high-resolution for the safe passage of commercial vessels.

Data collected will be used to improve nautical charts of the Arctic, and lays the groundwork for future mapping operations in the Arctic and beyond.

Saildrone typically deploys Arctic missions from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, but due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the vehicles had to be deployed from Saildrone Headquarters in San Francisco, adding a 2,000 nautical mile transit across the North Pacific at the start and end of the mission. After an approximately 11.5-week transit, the vehicles rounded Point Hope to begin the survey. In addition to mapping data, the saildrones also collected weather and climate data that was shared with weather forecasters in real time.

“The completion of the summer mapping mission using saildrones is an achievement for all involved. This mission lays the groundwork for future mapping operations in not only the Arctic but other remote locations.”

Rear Adm. Shep Smith

Former director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey

Scientific Papers

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