BOEM-Sponsored Saildrone Surveyor Expedition Returning Home After Exploring Aleutian Islands

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Successful interagency partnership used prototype uncrewed survey platform to address ocean exploration and characterization gaps in remote area
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The Saildrone Surveyor in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor at the beginning of the Aleutians Uncrewed Ocean Exploration expedition. Image courtesy of Saildrone Inc.

Since departing Dutch Harbor on August 11, the uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) Saildrone Surveyor has been collecting seafloor mapping and surface oceanographic data in priority areas of the relatively unexplored Aleutian Islands. This expedition, part of a multi-agency public-private partnership funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was operationally managed through NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute (OECI), including its partner institution the University of New Hampshire. Its mission was to gather data on several large, unexplored areas off the Aleutian chain identified as high priority for NOAA, BOEM, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the broader federal Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization.

Launched in June, Saildrone Surveyor is the world’s largest USV. Designed by Saildrone, Inc., of Alameda, CA, at first glance the 72-foot long, 14-ton vessel looks like a giant sailboard. The Surveyor employs both diesel and wind power for propulsion and uses solar panels to power a suite of electronics that can collect acoustic, oceanographic, and meteorological data both from above and below the ocean surface.

Severe weather is the norm in the waters around the Aleutian Islands, with high winds, violent storms, and persistent fog that make missions by traditional crewed survey vessels extremely hazardous and seasonally limited. But the Saildrone Surveyor was built to take these harsh conditions in stride, and during this expedition it continued collecting quality data even in 35 knot winds, strong currents and wave swells up to 5 meters, conditions that would have proved too challenging for most crewed survey vessels. The USV did have to briefly detour to a secondary priority area to avoid the direct path of Hurricane Mubok but was only briefly delayed before returning to its primary survey area. It was able to successfully collect high quality bathymetry and backscatter data in most the BOEM/USGS survey areas before stopping on October 3.

The Saildrone Surveyor departing Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after the mid-project pit stop. Image courtesy of Saildrone Inc.

“The mapping data we’ve seen so far looks to be very high quality and will help improve understanding of these areas,” said Mark Mueller, Benthic Ecologist in BOEM’s Office of Environmental Programs and BOEM’s Contracting Officer’s Representative for the study. “This has been a very exciting project to work on. I think that innovative, uncrewed survey platforms like this can address a real need for vehicles that can operate cost effectively in challenging conditions and in remote areas. I’m hoping to see more cutting-edge technologies like this one become commonplace in ocean exploration and characterization work.”

The Surveyor is now returning to its home port in Alameda, California after which it will start a new survey area offshore California for NOAA Ocean Exploration.


-- BOEM --

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for America’s offshore energy and mineral resources. The bureau promotes energy independence, environmental protection and economic development through responsible, science-based management of energy and mineral resources on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.