The Saildrone Surveyor, the world’s largest uncrewed ocean mapping vehicle, has completed a months-long survey around Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and off the coast of California. The Saildrone surveyed more than 45,000 square kilometers of the previously unknown ocean floor to address ocean exploration gaps in remote areas with uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs).
The project is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The United States Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), stretching from the coast to 200 nautical miles from shore, is one of the largest in the world, but it is largely still unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. In terms of areas, Alaska is the least mapped region in the US EEZ.
The Surveyor SD 1200 departed Saildrone‘s headquarters in Alameda, California, to sail across the North Pacific to the survey area in July 2022. The expedition was undertaken in two parts. In the first half, between August and October, the ocean drone mapped 16,254 square kilometers (4,739 square nautical miles) of unknown seafloor around the Aleutian Islands in a period of 52 days.
During the mission, the Surveyor also carried an Environmental Sample Processor from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute – a “lab in a can” – to collect important clues about marine biodiversity and ocean health from the genetic “fingerprints” left behind by marine life. Severe weather is the norm in the Aleutian region, but the Surveyor continued to collect high-quality data even in 35-knot winds and wave swells over 5 meters (16 feet).
Then, during the second half, the ocean drone mapped an additional 29,720 square kilometers (8,665 square nautical miles) of the US EEZ. It also discovered a previously unknown seamount standing approximately 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high.
The collected data will be used to optimize dive targets during upcoming expeditions on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. The data collected around the Aleutian Islands will be publicly available through NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information once post-processing has been completed by the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire.
“Surveyor brings a new and exciting capability for ocean exploration and mapping,” said Brian Connon, Saildrone VP of Ocean Mapping. “Mapping in the Aleutians is not trivial, and the conditions there can be austere any time of year. The Surveyor weathered the storms, collected high-resolution bathymetry, and put no humans at risk. This mission proves that long-endurance USVs provide a viable option to achieve the goals of the National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Strategy. This is the future of ocean mapping.”