After filming 50ft hurricane waves, an ocean drone company using unmanned boats to stop illegal fishing, mapped the ocean floor


In late September, a new type of boat drone capable of moving through the center of a hurricane emerged from a particularly powerful storm with rarely captured video of towering waves rolling through the Atlantic Ocean.

The Saildrone, designed to record video and data that helps scientists better understand storms, steered into Hurricane Sam’s path and captured footage of 50ft waves rolling in and out of frame while whipped by wind and rain.

Now, after capturing a sight few have ever seen, the company behind the ocean drone is expanding its reach.

Saildrone, Inc. is opening a new facility for its unmanned boats in St. Petersburg, Florida to map the ocean floor and track illegal fishing, all with the help of robots. With more boats in the area, the company said it also hopes to send the drones into more storms during the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season.

On Wednesday, Saildrone opened the ocean mapping headquarters and operations center in St. Petersburg’s Innovation District. The drones based there will help the Florida Coastal Mapping Program, which aims to visualize the seabed of the Florida coast to both protect the local environment and improve emergency response to events such as hurricanes. The company said the work would be essential to help preserve Florida’s coastline, which is essential to the state’s economy. The boats will also be used to find illegal fishermen and drug traffickers.

“Unmanned systems can do so much more, with far less capital investment than traditional approaches, so we’re excited to play a part in bringing a brighter future to Florida,” said Richard Jenkins, Founder and CEO of Saildrone, in a press release.

The video captured by his drone in September was a scene from “The Perfect Storm”. Images like this have rarely been captured, as the risk to human life is too great for researchers to purposely sail into the center of a hurricane. But the Saildrone does not have the same concerns.

The Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or USV, was built to survive in hurricane waters. Known entirely as the Saildrone Explorer SD 1045, the boat features a specially designed “hurricane wing” – a type of stabilizing sail – which allows it to operate in extreme winds.

One of two Saildrones recently deployed to capture fishing data in Lakes Michigan and Huron through mid-September. Pictured, the drone is on a previous mission in the waters off San Francisco before heading north to study walleye pollock. (Photo provided by Saildrone, Inc.)

In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the company had five drones operating in the Atlantic Ocean last year to collect data that could help scientists better understand and predict hurricanes.

“Saildrone is going where no research vessel has gone before, sailing right into the eye of the hurricane, collecting data that will transform our understanding of these powerful storms,” ​​Jenkins said in October. “Having conquered the Arctic and the Southern Ocean, hurricanes were the final frontier for the Saildrone’s survivability. We are proud to have engineered a vehicle capable of operating in the most extreme weather conditions on Earth.

The drones, NOAA said, collect real-time data that will influence hurricane forecasting models. The agency expects to learn more about the destructive storms that are developing and intensifying as they cross the ocean.

The information collected by drones could also help scientists improve hurricane warnings and help coastal residents prepare for storms, reducing the loss of life they cause.

“Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds build strength within hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities,” said NOAA scientist Greg Foltz. “New data from Saildrones and other unmanned systems that NOAA uses will help us better predict the forces driving hurricanes and be able to warn communities earlier.”

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