In July, three odd-looking, 23-foot-long sailboats will launch from a dock in Alaska's Dutch Harbor. They will meander the seas between the U.S. and Russia to track ice melt, measure the ocean's levels of carbon dioxide, and count fish, seal, and whale populations. And they'll do all this without a single human being on board.

The autonomous boats belong to Saildrone, a 26-person startup based out of a hangar at what used to be the Alameda Naval Air Station in California, a short ferry ride from San Francisco. Saildrone's boats, which the company refers to as unmanned surface vehicles, are outfitted with 42 meteorological and oceanographic research sensors. They're guided by GPS and controlled by a remote rudder. Because there is no human crew, they can go to hard-to-reach and difficult environments to collect data and help scientists gain a better view of the state of ocean health and the changing climate.

Oceanic data is valuable, but for decades the only way to study the world's hostile waters was to deploy a stationary buoy, launch a satellite into space, or send a government research vessel that runs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to operate--on top of its initial price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars. Saildrone offers government researchers and private companies more easily accessible data on fish and wildlife populations, environmental health, ocean temperatures, weather, and climate change.

The big idea

In one year, Saildrone hopes to deploy more than 100 drones to give the first comprehensive view of the planet from the ocean and how and why the climate is changing, says founder Richard Jenkins. In a few years, Saildrone plans to deploy more drones into the ocean than there are satellites orbiting Earth. While explaining climate change in a single year is a lofty, if unrealistic, goal, Saildrone is already making use of the data it gathers.

Saildrone CEO Richard Jenkins.
CREDIT: Courtesy company

The company's data-as-a-service program charges $2,500 a day, and customers currently include commercial fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of Homeland Security. (Saildrone's boats can also report to the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard when they find narco-subs or boats smuggling drugs.) Eventually, Jenkins says, Saildrone could have enough drone boats to be able to predict the world's weather with more precision than traditional satellites--something that private companies in shipping, oil, and plenty of other industries would surely want.

Jessica Cross, an oceanographer at the NOAA, is one of three principal investigators using the Saildrone (and other technologies) to study how the Arctic Ocean is absorbing carbon dioxide and how that affects fish populations, the food chain, and subsistence and commercial fisheries. She says about 60 percent of the world's commercial fishing is done in Alaska, which means the fish in these waters contribute to food security everywhere.

"We are collecting the best data we can to help us answer the critical questions," says Cross. Among these questions, she includes, "What impacts do changes in the Arctic have on the large-scale climate and weather systems?" and "Will physical changes in the Arctic affect ecosystems that commercial and subsistence fisheries depend on?"

Cross has been working with Saildrone since 2013, and she installed NOAA-approved sensors to collect data for the government. Right now, she is focused on measuring the baseline levels of carbon dioxide in the water so she can track the increase in years to come. Cross says that as the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, the more acidic the water becomes, which hurts marine life and makes it harder for organisms to grow skeletons and build shells. These organisms are vital food sources for fish and walruses, which in turn are vital to humans. "If the fish and walruses are starving, people will be starving," says Cross.

Saildrone doesn't aim to replace other oceanic research systems, says Cross. Ships, buoys, and satellites are still necessary, but Saildrone gives researchers an expanded view of the remote corners of the world's oceans. One of Saildrone's biggest advantages is how its vessels can help scale research. Scientists can deploy a fleet to form a network of connected, autonomous data points. The drones are also durable, Cross says--she hasn't lost or flipped a boat in the four years they've been deployed in the hostile, storm-prone waters of the Arctic region.

Saildrone in stormy waters.
CREDIT: Courtesy company

A global data network

The idea for Saildrone's design, a hard carbon-fiber sail that looks and acts like an aircraft wing, came from Jenkins's past as a land-yacht racer. Starting in 1999, Jenkins tried to break the world's wind-powered land-sailing speed record. He did not succeed until 2009, when he sailed his "Greenbird" at 126.2 mph on a dry lake in California. After completing the mission, he consulted for Eric and Wendy Schmidt and their nonprofit Schmidt Ocean Institute. When Jenkins realized how "phenomenally expensive" it was to conduct research, he devised a plan to transform his land-yacht design into one of an autonomous sailboat outfitted with sensors and solar panels. Saildrone started as a nonprofit endeavor with the Schmidts' philanthropic foundation, but in August 2015, Jenkins decided to turn it into a for-profit venture and raised $14 million from venture capital firms Social Capital, Lux Capital, and Capricorn Investment Group.

John Dabiri, a professor of civil and environmental and mechanical engineering at Stanford, says the ocean surface is relatively poorly sampled and there is a need for low-cost ways to collect data. So it's not surprising that Saildrone has competition. Boeing recently acquired Liquid Robotics, which makes a surfboard-like drone that's a bit smaller and slower than a Saildrone. MRV Systems makes the Alamo Float, an autonomous float that dives beneath sea ice to collect data. The Slocum Electric Glider, a small underwater ocean drone made by Teledyne Marine, looks like a friendly missile and collects data for scientists at institutions like Rutgers University.

Right now, Saildrone has 20 drone boats conducting specific tasks, like measuring carbon dioxide and counting fish. The data is beamed to a satellite and shared with researchers in real time. Once a network of hundreds, or thousands, is in place, Jenkins says, Saildrone's potential will come together as it forms a constellation of interconnected data points in the ocean tracking Earth's climate from pole to pole.

A map of the Saildrone's many data-collecting sensors.
CREDIT: Courtesy company

Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital, which invested in Saildrone, says weather-prediction data alone is an industry worth billions of dollars. But he adds that Saildrone has the potential to be bigger than Google Maps and bigger than the space satellite program.
"Once you're able to collect proprietary data, information that no one has had before, it creates new types of customers," says Zuberi. He says Saildrone's data can now show commercial fishermen where the largest populations of fish are swimming. When Saildrone can connect all of its data points, it will be able to predict natural disasters, provide real-time weather conditions on the ocean, and manage fishing areas and shipping lanes.

To be sure, scaling Saildrone and its data-as-a-service business model is no easy task. Zuberi likens the company's biggest challenge to the one Tesla faces. To become a leading electric car manufacturer, Tesla had to become the world's biggest battery factory. Similarly, to support its global data-collecting network, will Saildrone need to become one of the largest ship builders in the world? That's a future that will require a lot of capital--and will likely attract more competition.

Still, the time is right. "We have seen this happen in space with micro satellites and low-cost rockets, on the street with internet-connected vehicles and soon self-driving cars, and in the sky with drones. Now it's time for robots in the ocean," Zuberi says.