On May 21st, 2018 we learned about

Autonomous vessels promise to sail and soar for ubiquitous ocean observations

Armadas of robotic boats may soon sail the seven seas, although there won’t be a single sailor among them. While there’s obviously value is moving humans across the oceans, doing so requires a lot of space and supplies, requiring much bigger, costlier vessels. Instead of making fully-stocked, mobile bases of operation, designers have been looking at sailboats and soaring birds for inspiration, coming up with extremely lightweight and efficient vehicles. The resulting drones can then be sent on extended missions around the planet, gathering data that would be impractical for humans to pick up in person.

Mechanical mariner

The Saildrone was actually inspired by a car. Designer Richard Jenkins took what he learned about sail design when breaking a world record for “land sailing” and applied it to an autonomous sailboat. Resembling a hard-shelled catamaran with a vertical surfboard, the solar-powered craft can be deployed for weeks of reconnaissance work without worrying about supplies or sailors’ safety.

Saildrones have already embarked on a number of missions, from long-distance travel to watching clusters of sharks in a patch of the Pacific Ocean called the White Shark Cafe. With cameras and a battery of sensors, the drones can basically mill about for as long as necessary, beaming data in real time back to shore.

Soaring or sailing

If a Saildrone is too slow for your observational needs, engineers from MIT may soon have a solution that combines elements of sailboats with albatrosses. The boat-glider mash-up is actually meant to function primarily as a glider, with a narrow, nine-foot wing mounted over a keel and below a sail. The unusual form-factor allows the six-pound craft to fly over the surface of the water much faster than the average sailboat, then drop into the water and continue on its journey if the winds grow too weak.

Albatrosses can soar enormous distances, relying on their long wings to harvest energy from varying airflows over the ocean. They’ll spend some time in a faster air current, then get a forward boost when dropping down to slower air. The glider then copies this strategy, and as a result can move up to 23 miles-per-hour when the prevailing wind is moving closer to six miles-per-hour. When this kind of super-efficient gliding isn’t sufficient, the drone can then dip its keel into the water and push on, waiting for the wind to pick it up again.

Saturating the seas

Both of these designs are designed to be part of larger fleets. With 1000 Saildrones or gliders patrolling at once, researchers could gain a much more holistic picture of what’s happening in the ocean. Temperatures, wind speed, salinity and more could allow us to better understand larger patterns in the weather or ocean currents, pick up signs of a tsunami, or track migrating animals in a way that’s never been practical before.

Source: Autonomous glider can fly like an albatross, cruise like a sailboat by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Science Daily

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