SD 1020 approaches Point Bluff, New Zealand, in stormy conditions after finishing the First Saildrone Antarctic Circumnavigation, sailing 22,000 kilometers around the Antarctic Ocean in 196 days. RICHARD JENKINS/COURTESY SAILDRONE, INC.

The New Ocean Explorers

Meet the wind- and solar-powered ocean drones boldly going where humans rarely venture—including the harsh, unforgiving Antarctic.

On January 19, 2019, an unmanned surface vehicle going by the name SD 1020 left Bluff, New Zealand, heavily tasked. SD 1020 had to cover 22,000 kilometers (11,879 nautical miles) around the Antarctic (Southern) Ocean, ​where colossal waves occasionally soar to nearly 24 meters, gusting winds exceed 65 knots, and titanium icebergs emerge out of nowhere, as the neophyte ocean envelops Antarctica like the iciest blanket ever—the Earth’s coldest, most remote, and most hostile water mass. The SD 1020 showed great resolve. On August 3, 2019, it returned to Bluff safe and became the first vessel ever to have completed an autonomous circumnavigation of the Antarctic.

Generation 4 saildrone deployed from San Francisco on the 2018 White Shark Cafe mission.RICHARD JENKINS/COURTESY SAILDRONE INC.

SD 1020 is a member of the wider family of saildrones, wind- and solar-powered ocean drones that are able to sail 100 kilometers per day on average, and which consist of a narrow seven-meter-long hull, a five-meter-tall wing, and a keel with a 2.5-meter draft. These saildrones can be deployed and recovered from any seaside dock and can fit into a shipping container allowing transit to any launch site. When they’re deployed from a dock, they can sail to the area of study, and come back once the mission is complete.

“Saildrones are autonomous,” says Richard Jenkins, engineer, founder, and CEO of Saildrone, the company that designs, produces, and manages these USVs. A human gives them a route to sail and waypoints, and the vehicles get from one waypoint to the next autonomously by themselves. And they do so without putting to risk the sea or any marine life that crosses their path.

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