Robot Boats Are Sailing the Seven Seas to Predict El Niño


Self-driving boats, kitted out with scientific sensors, could hold the key to avoiding the next major weather disaster. The boats, created by Saildrone, are being used by the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory to enhance data gathered from the Pacific Ocean, where water temperature patterns are helping scientists understand the El Niño phenomenon. Being able to predict the next event could save millions of dollars and countless lives.

“They [climate scientists] completely failed to see the last one coming,” said Richard Jenkins, co-founder of Saildrone, in an interview published in the New York Times on Sunday. “They have a pressing need for more data.”

Saildrone’s strength lies in the remote control scientists have from the shore. Instead of attaching sensors to buoys, teams can now alter ongoing data collection without having to leave the office. Autonomy means the scientists also don’t have to dedicate themselves to constantly steering. The boats remain upright thanks to a carbon fiber wing structure that can move sails faster than a human ever could.

“A self-correcting model is really a super powerful way of doing things,” Christopher Sabine, director of the NOAA lab that has been using the drones since April 2015, told the New York Times. “For climate modeling we need to know what’s going on year-round, and to be perfectly frank, we don’t like to go out into the middle of winter.”

The boats don’t come cheap. Scientists wanting to gather data with the vessels have to rent them from Saildrone for $2,500 per day per boat. It pales in comparison to manned vessel prices though, with a research vessel costing around $80,000 a day. Fisherman can also rent the boats for measuring fish, relaying data that shows what nearby seals are eating and how many haddock congregate in a set area.

Predicting the next El Niño would help local governments better prepare for forthcoming extreme conditions. In December, Portland found itself flooded with record levels of rainfall, and overall the weather event was found to have caused over $22 billion in damages across the world. The NOAA’s research will go a long way towards emergency planning.