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Meet the sailing robots trying to solve climate change

Story at a glance

  • Saildrones are carbon neutral, with the 23-foot Explorer model using just the power of the sun and the wind to complete full year long missions around the world.
  • A day of saildrone data costs a client about $2,500 compared to the $30,000 daily cost of running a large research vessel.
  • One of the biggest projects these saildrones are undertaking is creating a complete topographical map of the entire ocean floor.

“We know more about the moon and Mars than we do our own planet,” says Richard Jenkins, founder and CEO of Saildrone, a data and robotics company located in a former Naval airstation hangar in Alameda, California.

Saildrone was founded in 2013, after Jenkins spent a decade of his life perfecting a high-performance, hard-wing sail, capable of breaking the motorless land speed record at 126.1 mph. The trick was to create a sail that was able to automatically trim itself to the correct position for maximum wind power, a feat traditionally achieved by using ropes and human force. Jenkins’ wing more resembles an airplane wing than a traditional sail, but instead of providing lift, the saildrone wing provides thrust. 

Saildrone doesn’t actually sell saildrones. They sell data, and a whole lot of it, for a fraction of the price of a traditional ocean research vessel. A day of saildrone data costs a client about $2,500 compared to the $30,000 daily cost of running a large research vessel. And saildrones are also carbon neutral, with the 23-foot Explorer model using just the power of the sun and the wind to complete full year long missions around the world. 

These unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) are covered top to bottom with solar-powered sensors that provide real-time tracking data to their mission control center in Alameda. They measure weather patterns and CO2 levels, with the capability of providing live storm analysis from the middle of a category 4 hurricane. The live data collected from these hurricanes is being used by NOAA to more accurately predict the hurricane’s path. 

They also count fish to give precise population numbers to agencies responsible for setting catch limits for sustainable fisheries, capture real-time video of drug smugglers and illegal fishing operations that aids the U.S. Coast Guard in ocean security, and collect wind density data to help energy companies find prime spots to build offshore wind farms.

But one of the biggest projects these saildrones are undertaking is creating a complete topographical map of the entire ocean floor. The Surveyor, Saildrone’s largest model, measuring 72 feet from bow to stern, is equipped with state-of-the-art sonar sensors that provide 3D models of the ocean floor.

“Ocean mapping is fundamentally important to understanding and predicting our future. Life started probably at the bottom of the ocean, and it really dictates the ocean currents and ocean circulation which transfers heat and carbon throughout our oceans,” says Jenkins, “so understanding the deep sea is critical for geophysics, safety and navigation, and also ocean circulation. Less than 20% of our ocean is mapped, and with 20 of our Surveyors, we could map the entire planet in 9.6 years.” 

Clients are able to access all this information at the touch of a button, using the Saildrone mission portal mobile application, with a user-friendly interface that makes traditionally clunky ocean data easily digestible and readily available. 

In a data-driven, digital world, Saildrone is quickly becoming the premiere platform for those seeking precise information about our changing oceans. The company currently has around 100 manufactured saildrones. But Jenkins hopes to soon have a global fleet of 1,000 drones sailing around the world helping us understand and better protect our planet.