What Is a Saildrone and How Does It Work?

A saildrone is an autonomous vehicle designed for up to 12-month ocean data collection missions to monitor the planet in real time.

June 20, 2016

A saildrone is a wind and solar-powered unmanned surface vehicle (USV) capable of up to 12-month data collection missions on the open ocean. In October 2013, a saildrone nicknamed Honey Badger (these days Saildrone’s USVs are known only by a number) completed the first “no-handed” Pacific crossing, sailing 2,248 nautical miles in 34 days from San Francisco to Hawaii.

Early saildrone prototypes were designed with a narrow hull supported by two outriggers; the latest design is that of a 7 m (23 ft) hull and a deeper, heavier keel. They are powered by a 5 m (15 ft) wing, which is effectively a sail like on a sailboat, but of a design more similar to the wing on an airplane. Wind passing over the wing produces thrust, and a small tab on the end of the tail attached to the wing controls the angle of attack. The rudder controls the direction of the hull, and the keel keeps the saildrone upright. They are equipped with GPS and an onboard computer, enabling the vehicles to navigate following prescribed waypoints, while staying in a safety corridor, taking winds and currents into consideration autonomously. All vehicles are supervised 24/7 by trained operators at the Saildrone Mission Control in Alameda, CA.

Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins evolved the design for his land-sailing vehicle, Greenbird, in which he set the wind-powered land speed record at 126 mph, to build the first ocean drone. However, Saildrone USVs aren’t designed for speed, rather stability and consistency, which is better for data collection, makes them environmentally friendly, and does not interfere with the marine life they are studying. (Although, SD 1020 did set the speed record in the Southern Ocean.)

Saildrone works with science partners like NOAA to gather valuable data about fisheries, oil seeps and spills, meteorology, and underwater bathymetry.

Each saildrone carries a payload of science-grade sensors to measure important atmospheric and oceanographic environmental variables in real time. They have been deployed on data collection missions in the Arctic, Atlantic, North Sea, Tropical Pacific, South Pacific, Southern Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and along the North American West Coast to track fish and mammals, measure ocean acidification, detect and track oil seeps and spills, and chart underwater bathymetry for safe navigation.

While ocean buoys are expensive and difficult to deploy and maintain, Saildrone USVs fit in a shipping container, can be deployed from any oceanside dock, and will return to the same dock without requiring a ship. Routes can be altered on the fly by scientists via the online Saildrone Mission Portal. Read more about how a Saildrone mission is managed.

To ensure safe operations at sea, each saildrone carries an Automated Identification System (AIS) transceiver, enabling it to see surrounding commercial traffic. The vehicles are slow relative to other marine users and are designed to be highly visible. Each is equipped with a radar reflector, high visibility colors for daytime visibility, and a bright navigation light for nighttime awareness. Each vehicle carries four onboard cameras to provide domain awareness to operators at Saildrone Mission Control.

The primary goal of the Saildrone technology is to lower the cost of in situ ocean data collection, which in turn enables monitoring of much larger areas in real time. By collecting better inputs for scientists, we are helping to improve the understanding of how our oceans drive key systems that affect humanity including global weather, fish abundance, and ocean acidification, and provide a persistent presence at sea without putting human lives at risk in dangerous, inhospitable conditions.

Read more on Wired: The Drone That Will Sail Itself Around the World and Popular Mechanics: The New Ocean Explorers

Main photo

Schmidt Ocean Institute.