Missions

Saildrone Surveyor Completes Its First Ocean Crossing from San Francisco to Hawaii

Following this successful proof of concept voyage, Saildrone will build a fleet of Surveyors, manufactured at US shipyards, to map Earth’s oceans in the next 10 years.

By
Saildrone
,
on
July 9, 2021

Saildrone’s flagship autonomous, uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) arrived in Hawaii after a groundbreaking 2,250-nautical mile maiden voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu. While ocean crossings are nothing new for Saildrone’s fleet of USVs, the Surveyor is a new, much larger class of vehicle optimized for deep-ocean mapping and will be a transformational tool in the global effort to map our oceans. 

Ocean mapping is incredibly important to people on land: 90% of the world’s commerce moves across the oceans, making ocean mapping critical for improving navigation safety and increasing productivity at our ports. Knowing the shape of the seafloor helps us to understand where a tsunami would have the most impact and how ocean currents distribute heat throughout the ocean, affecting our weather. However, only about 20% of the seafloor has been mapped using modern, high-quality instruments to date, leaving substantial gaps in our knowledge about our oceans.

Watch as Saildrone Surveyor approaches Oahu under its own wind power. As it enters the channel, its high-efficiency diesel engine is turned on so that it can motor to the dock. The Surveyor can be deployed from any oceanside dock in the world.

The lack of ocean exploration is largely due to the high cost of access to our oceans, which has traditionally been undertaken by large ships that are very expensive to build and operate. The Saildrone Surveyor represents a paradigm shift in the cost of ocean access, performing the same job as a survey ship, with the same cutting-edge sonar hardware, but at a fraction of the cost and carbon footprint.

“This successful maiden voyage marks a revolution in our ability to understand our planet,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO. “We have solved the challenge of reliable long-range, large-payload remote maritime operations. Offshore surveys can now be accomplished without a large ship and crew; this completely changes operational economics for our customers. Based on this achievement, I am excited to apply Saildrone Surveyor technology to other markets normally reserved for large ships, such as homeland security and defense applications. The implications of a low-carbon solution to these critical maritime missions are significant.”

Saildrone founder & CEO Richard Jenkins on the hull of the Saildrone Surveyor
Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins inspects the Saildrone Surveyor after it arrived safely in port in Honolulu.

Data quality that exceeds international standards

During the 28-day trans-Pacific voyage, the Surveyor demonstrated the industry-changing capabilities it delivers. Measuring 72 feet long and weighing 14 tons, the Saildrone Surveyor carries a similar sophisticated array of acoustic instruments to that of manned survey ships, and it is the only autonomous vehicle capable of long-endurance ocean mapping operations using renewable energy as its primary source of power. 

The Surveyor’s sensors map the seafloor in high resolution to a depth of 23,000 feet (7,000 m), providing critical information about the water column and the seafloor ecosystems. This data  helps address issues impacting our world, from climate change and resource management to offshore energy and maritime safety.

Saildrone Surveyor hull on crane
The Surveyor carries a sophisticated array of sonars in its keel, including the Kongsberg EM 2040 and EM 304, to map the seafloor to a depth of 23,000 feet (7,000 m).

Saildrone has partnered with researchers at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), supported by a grant through the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, over the past three years to develop and refine the Surveyor’s impressive capabilities.

Data quality from the Saildrone Surveyor has been assessed by an external team from UNH, which normally calibrates large commercial and government survey vessels with massive carbon footprints. The data quality that the Surveyor can collect has been found to rival that of the most advanced ocean survey ships in use today—meeting or exceeding International Hydrographic Organization standards.

“The data quality from the surveyor is of very high quality, and as good as anything we have seen from a ship,” said Larry Mayer, director for the UNH Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM). “Due to the wind-powered nature of the vehicle, it is very quiet, and this enables the very accurate acoustic measurements needed to map to these depths.”

Rigorous sea trials have shown that the data quality the Surveyor can collect rivals that of the most advanced ocean survey ships in use today—meeting or exceeding International Hydrographic Organization standards.

Ocean mapping is important to everyone

Ocean resources must be sustainably managed to ensure future generations have a healthy and productive ocean that will support ever-growing needs for fish and aquaculture. Offshore renewable energy, pipelines, and undersea cables require detailed seafloor information prior to the installation of infrastructure. Understanding the bottom topography of the ocean—the shape, depth, and surface type—is integral to these efforts.

Ocean mapping also provides the baseline information required to model and understand the potential impacts of climate change on our coastal communities. Estimations of sea level rise, improvements to coastal resiliency, and forecasts of tropical storm intensity all depend on accurate knowledge of the seafloor.

Satellites can provide a very rough idea about the shape of the seafloor, but they can’t see the fine details that affect ocean currents and the distribution of sediments. Until now, large ships were required for that type of high-resolution ocean mapping. However, while they are very good at what they’re designed for, ocean survey ships are extremely expensive to operate, including the cost of the crew, supplies, maintenance, and diesel. They are also loud, and can disturb the environment they are operating in.

Saildrone Surveyor in waves
The wind power harnessed by the Surveyor enables a potential mission duration capability of a staggering 160+ days.

An eco-friendly alternative

The Saildrone Surveyor is a hybrid vehicle: It leverages the same patented wind-powered technology as the 23-foot (7 meters) Saildrone Explorer for cost-effective and environmentally friendly data collection and also has a high-efficiency diesel engine for light-wind conditions and backup power. While a traditional survey ship may consume many thousands of gallons of fuel per day, the Saildrone Surveyor only consumes between two and 10 gallons per day, depending on wind availability.

In May, the Surveyor successfully mapped 1,094 square miles of previously unmapped ocean floor approximately 140 nm off the coast of San Francisco. During the mission, it discovered a completely unknown 2,600-foot (800 m) “hill”. Over the course of the three-day mission, the Surveyor used its high-efficiency engine only two hours per day and consumed a mere five gallons (20 l) of fuel per day. By leveraging the power of the wind, and with no crew to support, the Surveyor can remain at sea for a staggering 160+ days.

“We’re really excited about the potential of the Surveyor to help address the big gaps that exist in ocean mapping,” said Brian Connon, VP of Ocean Mapping at Saildrone.

High-resolution multibeam data from the Saildrone Surveyor showing a previously unknown sea feature discovered during the Surveyor’s first offshore mapping mission, 140 nm off the coast of San Francisco in May 2021.

A voyage of discovery

The North Pacific, between San Francisco and Hawaii, is an area of ocean known to have extensive seamounts, fracture zones, and other features, but only very limited mapping has been done outside of shipping lanes. The Surveyor sailed to Hawaii along a never-before-mapped route, revealing previously unknown details about the Pacific Ocean seafloor, which will make the area safer for maritime activity and give insight into the performance of the Surveyor and its mapping system.

Surveyor and windsurfer
The Saildrone Surveyor departed San Francisco Bay for Hawaii on June 10, 2021. Photo Pablo Fernicola/@ship_spotting_oak_sfo.

The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project is funding the collection of new seafloor mapping data during the Hawaii transit. Seabed 2030 aims to map the global ocean floor in high resolution by the year 2030.

“We tend to forget that oceans are fundamental to our everyday way of life, and the health of the ocean is fundamental to the preservation of humanity. Seabed 2030 aims to provide a freely available global baseline map of the oceans to support ocean stewardship. Autonomous technologies lower the carbon footprint of this effort, using less fuel and fewer resources. We’re hugely excited about what the Saildrone Surveyor is going to deliver for Seabed 2030,” said Jamie McMichael-Phillips, director of Seabed 2030.

Sunset over Oahu
One of the Surveyor’s first glimpses of Oahu, as captured by its masthead cameras, as it sailed through the Molokai Channel.

The impressive capabilities of Saildrone’s autonomous vehicles have been proven in numerous operational missions for science, ocean mapping, and maritime security, covering over 500,000 nautical miles from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The Saildrone fleet has logged more than 10,000 days at sea in some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. 

With this successful proof of concept voyage in the logbook, Saildrone will begin building a fleet of Surveyors, to be manufactured at a US shipyard, to make mapping Earth’s oceans in the next 10 years possible.

Main photo

The Saildrone Surveyor approaches Oahu, with Waikiki and Diamond Head in the background, after sailing 2,250 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean.

Resources

James Carey, “5 Reasons Why It Is Important to Map the Ocean Floor,” UK Hydrographic Office, blog, June 10, 2021

Rebecca Irelan, “Setting Sail for Science,” University of New Hampshire, press release, April 26, 2021