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CA - The Autonomous Saildrone Surveyor Preps for Its Sea Voyage

The robo-vessel will map the ocean floor, and its solar-powered sensors will sample fish DNA and collect climate data.

IF YOU HAPPEN to be crossing the San Francisco Bay or Golden Gate bridges this week, look for a massive surfboard with a red sail on top cruising slowly across the water. Don’t flinch if you don’t see anyone on board. It’s actually an autonomous research vessel known as the Saildrone Surveyor and it’s being steered remotely from shore.

The 72-foot-long vessel is launching this week into the bay from its dock at a former naval base in Alameda, California. It is designed to spend months at sea mapping the seafloor with powerful sonar devices, while simultaneously scanning the ocean surface for genetic material to identify fish and other marine organisms swimming below.

The carbon-fiber composite and stainless steel-hulled vessel will navigate by itself, following a preprogrammed route to collect and transmit oceanographic data back to Saildrone headquarters via satellite link. The data will then become available to government and academic scientists studying the ocean. In time, its designers say, they hope that solar-powered Surveyor might replace existing oceanographic research ships that are far more expensive to operate and leave a substantial carbon footprint.

“Our goal is to understand our planet,” says Richard Jenkins, founder and CEO of Saildrone, the California firm that has spent the past 15 years designing previous versions of vessels that are about a third as big as Surveyor. “There are many reasons why you need seafloor information, from knowing where to place telecommunications and transoceanic cables, to safety of navigation, or looking for submerged seismic faults that cause tsunamis.”

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