Saildrone Award Winners Address Big Questions with Autonomous Technology

The Saildrone Award provides researchers with 30 days of ocean data collection for an innovative research project.

The winners of the first two Saildrone Awards demonstrated innovative use cases for autonomous technology to address big questions related to ocean physics and ecology and air-sea heat and carbon exchange. Saildrone established the annual award to support revolutionary new approaches to ocean science and encourage creative use of its technology. Winners are offered 30 days of ocean data collection, equivalent to $1 million worth of research ship time, via Saildrone unmanned surface vehicle (USV).

Using Saildrone Autonomous In Situ Data for Satellite Validation and Research Into Upper Ocean Physics and Ecology

The first-ever Saildrone Award was presented in 2017 to a coalition of 20 scientists led by Dr. Chelle Gentemann of Earth & Space Research. The project, which took place April – June 2018, focused on frontal studies in the California current. Offshore of California, very cold water mixes with warm water, which creates sharp gradients. The Saildrone in situ platform can accurately map these gradients, but a satellite cannot.

Project Cruise Track with NASA data.The 60-day cruise track is shown with NASA’s NPP VIIRS satellite sea surface temperatures in the background.

The original 30-day mission was doubled to 60 days by a generous grant from The Schmidt Family Foundation. The Saildrone USV sailed down along the US/Mexico coast from San Francisco to Guadalupe Island and back. The route was selected to optimize science and validation objectives. The USV lingered at eight NOAA buoys to provide triple validation of observations—buoy, satellite, and USV. The saildrone repeat sampled some fine frontal features to examine heat exchange across the air-sea interface at Guadalupe Island and near San Francisco.

Saildrone's USV was used to augment the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), one of the key instruments onboard the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft

The Saildrone USV successfully completed the mission; the research team has evaluated the data and is beginning analysis of the results. The data set is now available at NASA JPL’s PO.DAAC website.

Wintertime Air-Sea Heat and Carbon Exchange in the Gulf Stream Observed with an Autonomous Wind-powered Surface Vehicle

A team led by Dr. Jaime Palter of the University of Rhode Island was chosen for the second annual Saildrone Award to study the air-sea heat exchange and CO2 uptake of western boundary currents, specifically the Gulf Stream, beginning in early 2019.

Western boundary currents present tremendous challenges to observation that are not easily addressed with traditional methods because of the short space and time scales that characterize their variability, which means that their contribution to the global ocean carbon budget has not yet been well quantified. Saildrone provides a platform capable of long-endurance, high-speed, accurate lower atmosphere, and surface ocean measurements.

Overview of the Gulf Stream monitoring mission

Dr. Palter and her team will measure wintertime surface heat and CO2 fluxes across the Gulf Stream with a Saildrone USV. The mission is expected to provide the most detailed data to date on the wintertime evolution of CO2 in the Gulf Stream from Cape Hatteras, NC, to a position approximately 1,000 kilometers’ offshore.

Saildrone's USV will compare the data collected with the Pioneer Array, one of the world's first permanent sea-floor "nodes". Image credit: MIT.

This project addresses a key scientific question with immense societal value: How to quantify ocean carbon sink in a time of global change. The western boundary currents are frontier regions for such quantification. Dr. Palter hopes that quantifying CO2 uptake and understanding its key controls in the Gulf Stream will provide a path forward to help close the global carbon budget. The resulting data set from this mission is available on the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet).


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