In 2009, a wind-powered vehicle with no engine blazed across the Mojave Desert at a record-setting 126.2 mph. The craft was designed by British engineer Richard Jenkins, who next decided to build one for the seas that could make the first unmanned trip around the globe. "There was no real long-term strategy," Jenkins admits, "other than record-breaking, because that was more fun than getting a real job."
Fast-forward a decade, and Saildrone--producer of solar-powered unmanned sailboats designed to collect real-time ocean data that's otherwise prohibitively expensive to gather--is a very real, venture-backed business. The Alameda, California-based startup's customers include governmental bodies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, as well as fishing companies and high-performance open-water-sports brands.
Quantifying Global Warming
"If you want to understand the planet, you need to understand two things: the ocean and the atmosphere," says COO Sebastien de Halleux. Sensors on the hull and keel detect carbon dioxide levels just above and below the water's surface. A device known as an infrared pyrometer helps track how much energy is being absorbed and released by the ocean-- factors that can impact weather patterns like El Niño. Another sensor tracks the ocean current to help scientists understand, say, how quickly and in what volume water from the tropics is traveling toward the poles.
Airplane of the Sea
The flap on the spar's tail, which works like an airplane wing elevator turned on its side, adjusts to affect airflow and control the vehicle's speed.
A Crystal Ball for Weather
Sensors at the tip of the spar gather data on air pressure, humidity, wind, solar radiation, and air temperature, which makes the drone useful not only in monitoring weather patterns but also in predicting them--and helps explain why the company's clients include risk-management firms.
Just Add Sunlight
A sensor in the hull detects wave height, useful information for Saildrone's high-performance-sports clients. Thanks to its solar panels, the vehicle doesn't require an engine or fuel; sunlight provides the energy needed to collect data and then beam it to satellites.
Have Remote, Will Travel
The rudder controls the vehicle's direction of travel using a route programmed by a human.
The keel is weighed down by lead, which allows the boat to roll with waves and stay upright. This is where sensors monitor data such as the water's acidity, salinity, temperature, and oxygenation. An underwater microphone detects dolphin and whale calls from dozens of miles away--and can distinguish between individual animals. An echo sounder sends sound waves down into the ocean and measures how much is reflected back, helping approximate how many fish are in a given area--key intelligence for fishing companies and government bodies that determine fishing quotas.
Surviving the Waves
"If you're a sailor on a long voyage, every day you're fixing something on the boat that wears or breaks," Jenkins says. The Saildrone is made mostly of durable carbon fiber, which allows it to stay intact and functioning even as it takes a beating from large, breaking waves. To protect against rust, the vehicle uses very little metal. A Saildrone remains at sea for up to a year at a time before coming back in for a tune-up. "Everything has to be 10 to 50 times tougher than something you can buy off the shelf," says Jenkins. "Aside from the sensors, we make every single part of the vehicle ourselves."