ByÂ Tom Burden
This week isÂ World Oceans Week. One of our friends shared thisÂ storyÂ on social media, and we could not resist passing it along. Hereâ€™s a tale where yesterdayâ€™s science fiction is todayâ€™s science fact, with a group of San Francisco Bay Area tech innovators leading the way.
The eastern Bering Sea is home to vast schools of pollock, the largest commercial fishery in the US by volume, and worth around $1.4 billion. Every year, scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center use research vessels and chartered fishing boats to perform scientific, fisheries-independent surveys, so that they can set quotas for this important industry.
This spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic descended worldwide, it became clear that ship-based surveys would need to be canceled. Instead, the biologists at NOAA Fisheries turned to Saildrone, a group on the leading edge of autonomous, sail-powered robotics.
â€śExtraordinary times require extraordinary measures,â€ť said project lead Alex De Robertis. â€śWe knew there was a possibility that surveys may be canceled this year, so we worked on a contingency plan to collect some data just in case. We were able to capitalize on our previous experience working closely with Saildrone and NOAA Researchâ€™s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) to get things off the ground quickly.â€ť
Nine days later, in an impressive display of rapid execution, a fleet of three 23-ft robotic keelboats was launched from Saildroneâ€™s Alameda base. They are on a six-week, autonomous voyage to the eastern Bering Sea, armed with twin-beam CHIRP (Compressed High Intensity Radar Pulse) scanning sonar, powered by solar panels and propelled by 15-ft-tall wingsails.
â€śSaildrones are designed to be deployed from any dock, sail to any location in the ocean, and complete their data-gathering missions without putting humans at risk. This makes Saildrone technology ideally suited to these tough times,â€ťÂ Saildrone CEO Richard JenkinsÂ told NOAA. â€śWeâ€™re proud to be able to contribute to this important mission.â€ť
In any normal year, teams of scientists would spend weeks together in close quarters onboard their research ships, collecting specimens in their nets so they could gauge weight, length, health and sex of the fish. They would combine this hands-on data collection with images from their scanning sonar to assess the state of the fishing stock. But this is not any normal year.