Unmanned vessels deployed for Alaska ocean research

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Researchers in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast will get help this summer from drones, but not the kind that fly.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and private researchers are gathering data on marine mammals, fish and ocean conditions from two “autonomous sailing vessels” built by Saildrone, an Alameda, California, company.

They hold great appeal for researchers because they’re far cheaper to operate than research ships and they can work in dangerous conditions of the North Pacific.

Operating by solar and wind power, the vessels can carry 200 pounds of instruments. Two were deployed from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Part of their payload will be acoustic gear that can pick up the sounds of North Pacific right whales, one on the most endangered animals on the planet.

Scientists estimate just 30 North Pacific right whales remain in the eastern stock of the population. Their numbers were decimated by whalers starting in the 1800s.

Finding right whales has been a challenge. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center has sent out research vessels at $25,000 per day trying to find them by sight or acoustic survey, said Doug DeMaster, science director.

“At that cost, we can’t afford to be out there very long,” DeMaster said. “The Saildrone should provide us a much more efficient, cost effective way to at least try to identify areas and times of year where we’re hearing right whales, and then we could reliably design surveys to take advantage of that information.”

Researchers will use the vessels to gather information on pollock, an important species for commercial fishermen and the main prey of northern fur seals, a species that has declined. Instruments on board also will collect oceanographic data used to track environmental changes.

The vessels can be steered with any web-enabled device.

“I’m controlling the two drones in the Bering Sea right now with my iPhone,” said Saildrone developer Richard Jenkins. “I’m in California.”


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