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Get to know the ocean drones propelled by wind and solar energy that go boldly where humans rarely venture, including the hard and unforgiving Antarctica.
On January 19, 2019, an unmanned marine vehicle with the name ‘SD 1020’ left Bluff, New Zealand. The vehicle covered 22,000 kilometers (11,879 nautical miles) around the Antarctic Ocean (South), where colossal waves occasionally rise to almost 24 meters, gust winds exceed 65 knots and titanium icebergs emerge from nowhere. Antarctica is the coldest blanket in history: the coldest, most remote and hostile body of water on Earth. The SD 1020 showed a great resolution. On August 3, 2019, he returned to Bluff Safe and became the first ship to complete an autonomous circumnavigation in Antarctica.
SD 1020 is a member of the largest family of saildrons, oceanic drones propelled by wind and solar energy that can navigate on average 100 kilometers per day , and consist of a narrow hull seven meters long, five meters high wing and a keel with a draft of 2.5 meters. These saildrones can be deployed and retrieved from any coastal dock and can fit in a shipping container that allows transit to any launch site. When deployed from a pier, they can navigate to the study area and return once the mission is completed.
“The Saildrones are autonomous,” says Richard Jenkins, engineer, founder and CEO of Saildrone, the company that designs, produces and manages these USVs. A person gives them a route to navigate and waypoints, and the vehicles go from one waypoint to the next autonomously. And they do it without risking the sea or any marine life that crosses their path.
The technology that allows this autonomy is healthy: each USV carries an automatic identification system, navigation lights, a radar reflector, high visibility wing colors, four on-board cameras, acoustic Doppler current profilers (sonar systems to measure water flow velocities), passive acoustic recorders for marine mammal studies and a series of 20 different sensors for each saildrone (the sensors are recruited in alignment with the tasks that the human operator wishes to complete).
Linked to on-board computers and transmitting their data through satellite communications to the Saildrone mission control center in Alameda, California, these sensors can measure anything, be it air temperature, sea and water, irradiance, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, wave height and period, salinity and acidity levels, biomass and the list continues.
When SD 1020 was launched from Bluff, he was “ordered” to meet a number of scientific objectives. Most of them focused on investigating the abundance of krill, direct and indirect relationships between predators and marine dams, and oceanic carbon dioxide absorption and general acidification, objectives developed in collaboration with major research agencies of the States United, Europe and Australia. But SD 1020 did not leave only the coast of New Zealand.
That same day in January, SD 1022 and SD 1023, two more saildrones, were launched along with SD 1020, but suffered damage on the road and had to return to Bluff shortly after. (The two drones they were relaunched last May and are currently in the South Atlantic Ocean, collecting data on krill). What made the SD 1020 successful was its wing. SD 1022 and SD 1023 had a high thin wing, unable to withstand winds of more than 60 knots and subsequent massive waves; On the contrary, the triumphant USV had a robust and newly designed “square team” capable of withstanding the enormous forces of being shot and submerged by 15-meter waves. It was the result of 10 years of research that curiously encompasses Jenkins’ previous successful attempt to break the ground speed record for a wind vehicle.
“The Southern Ocean is one of the most unexamined areas of our planet,” says Jenkins. “The survival of saildrone in the sea for [so much] is a very solid engineering evolution,” says Jenkins.
Although scientists have not yet completed their surveys, Jenkins is confident that the SD 1020 saildrone data taken to the coast after circumnavigating the world’s youngest ocean for 196 days will have a tremendous impact on our understanding of the environment and climate, helping in that way, to the navigation, fishing and oil and gas exploration sectors .
“We cannot make any general claim before scientists digested the data, but it is safe to say that we already have important new data, particularly with reference to carbon absorption rates in the Southern Ocean,” says Jenkins. Previous scientific knowledge about the Southern Ocean based primarily on observations made from ships that avoided extreme winter weather conditions in the region assumed that Antarctica was a large carbon sink. But given the recent findings, scientists may want to reconsider.
“The advance of autonomous and unmanned technologies can really improve our ocean’s understanding”
“The work carried out through the project of Modeling and Observations of Carbon and Climate of the Southern Ocean [a multi-institutional program aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the Southern Ocean and determining its impact on the climate] involved the deployment of pH sensors in autonomous floats in the ocean, a hose developed by Team Durafet, one of the winning teams of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, ” says Jyotika Virmani, physical oceanographer, atmospheric scientist and executive director of planet and environment at XPRIZE.
“The data showed that the Southern Ocean may not accumulate as much carbon as previously thought, however, there was some uncertainty in these data,” continues Virmani. Obviously, he believes that the Saildrone mission is a great achievement: “The strong winds and giant waves and the extremely harsh conditions of the Antarctic Ocean in winter make it extremely difficult to accurately sample with manned ships. The recent and surprising Saildrone mission has shown that the advance of autonomous and unmanned technologies can really improve our ocean’s understanding. “
Petros Ioannou, a professor of electrical engineering systems at the University of Southern California , is also certain that such great advances in ocean exploration are a natural expression of where technology is headed.
“It’s great to have all these unmanned vehicles,” says Ioannou. “We are talking about a very hostile environment where it would be risky for humans to be on board.”
Then these drones become very powerful. They can discover things that were previously impossible to discover. That said, Ioannou is quick to issue a more skeptical note about the safety of the USV.
“What happens if pirates interfere with the signals coming from the commander’s control centers and direct the drone elsewhere?”, He asks. “And if he loses contact with the vehicle? How does he recover? What kind of protocols will he follow? What about his failure modes? Can you sink it for example? How do you eliminate the risk of causing epic accidents?” Ioannou says .
When asked if saildrons have failure modes, Jenkins says there is no need for a self-destruct capability in drones because their data is encrypted.
Ioannou also seems unsure of who is going to benefit from such technologies.
“Let’s say you map the ocean, how we map space. Who will pay for this? Who would benefit from knowledge of the deep ocean? We know that there are minerals at the bottom of the ocean. Probably oil mining companies ? ”He says. (It is believed that the Antarctic Ocean is home to huge deposits of oil and gas fields on the continental margin and valuable minerals such as gold ).
Meanwhile, last August, another member of the Saildrone family, SD 1021, completed the fastest unmanned Atlantic crossing. SD 1021 was launched from Bermuda in the North Atlantic Ocean on May 25, with the mission of sailing towards the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland of England, and cover 3,000 nautical miles (5,550 km) at 75 Days in the process. It was another race that set a record for Saildrone, which, according to its website, collects data from all its missions for fish stock assessments, marine mammal tracking, bathymetric mapping, monitoring of changes in the oceanic ecosystem and better prognosis of the weather.
At the time of speaking, the company deploys 30 drones worldwide, with the aim of launching snowballs the size of the fleet. “We are making 100 drones this year and we intend to make 200 next year,” says Jenkins. “Next year again, we want to have 10 to 20 vehicles that permanently circumnavigate the Southern Ocean.”
It is estimated that 1,000 drones will roam the planet. It will be the last final game of the CEO of Saildrone; He wants to fill the Earth with saildrones.
“We have collected data from where data had never been collected before and we have shown that we are able to navigate anywhere in the world, all year long,” says Jenkins. “This opens the door to a completely new chapter to understand the weather.”