Self-Driving Sailing Ships Do Science

by | Jul 21, 2021 | Daily Space, Earth | 0 comments

IMAGE: Saildrone uncrewed sailing vehicles (USVs), like the one pictured here, made measurements of atmospheric cold pools in remote regions of the tropical Pacific Ocean. CREDIT: Saildrone Inc.

While we have the ability to see across the vastness of space, our own oceans only like to reveal a few meters to tens of meters of their contents of time. This can make exploration tricky. Even the surface of the ocean can be fickle in letting us understand what’s going on. Satellites can’t see beneath clouds, and the surface temperatures of waters beneath storms can often decide the outcome of the storms in those clouds.

Since we can’t cake the ocean with sensors, scientists have instead developed a remote control ocean drone, powered by solar power, that can navigate to places of interest. In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, a team led by Samantha Wills sent ten uncrewed sailing vehicles into the pools of cool air beneath thunderstorms. 

As it rains, water will evaporate, and this process pulls energy from the air and makes the temperatures drop. The cold air sinks, creating a downdraft that then hits the warm ocean surface where it is heated and begins to rise. Common in the tropics, these convection cells aren’t well understood, but these new drones, in just six months, were able to sail 137,000 kilometers and measure 300 cold pools. The data from these events demonstrated how wind builds, air and water temperatures change, and more. Future analysis should improve weather models. I can’t wait for the day when we can combine satellite images and drone data regularly in the nightly weather reports.

More Information

Remote-Controlled Ocean Drones Observe Atmospheric Cold Pools (Eos)

Cold Pools Observed by Uncrewed Surface Vehicles in the Central and Eastern Tropical Pacific,” Samantha M. Wills, Meghan F. Cronin, and Dongxiao Zhang, 2021 May 11, Geophysical Research Letters

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