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SETTING OFF: Two Saildrones are towed out of San Francisco Bay before a test voyage.

Two sailboats recently completed an eight-month journey across the Pacific Ocean—without captains onboard. The trip, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was the longest test yet of autonomous Saildrones, which gather data on the high seas.

Outfitted with an array of sensors, Saildrones measure things like ocean wind speeds, temperature, and salinity (saltiness). Scientists hope to use the data to study events like El Niño— a recurring climate pattern in the Pacific. El Niño causes ocean current patterns, temperatures, and winds to change, leading to droughts and floods around the world.

Information gathered by Saildrones could help scientists better understand what triggers an El Niño event—and other climate mysteries too. “We’re using these Saildrones to monitor how the ocean and atmosphere affect each other,” says Meghan Cronin, an oceanographer with NOAA.

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