Mapping the ocean’s floor is a surprisingly vital enterprise, which helps with a range of activities including shipping, coastal protection, and deep-sea resource gathering. It’s also a very costly and time-consuming activity, which can be demanding and dangerous for those involved. Saildrone is a startup focused on building out autonomous exploratory vessels that can do lots of mapping, while making very little impact on the environment in which they operate, and without requiring any crew on board at all.
Saildrone’s newest robotic ocean explorer is the Surveyor, its largest vessel at 72-feet long. The Surveyor can spend up to 12 months at a stretch out at sea, and draws its power from wind (hence the large sail-like structure, which is not actually used like the sail on a sailboat) and the sun (via the solar panels dotting its above-water surfaces). Its sensor instrumentation includes sonar that can map down to 7,000 meters (around 22,000 feet). That’s not quite as deep as some of the deepest parts of the world’s oceans, but it’s plenty deep enough to cover the average depth of around 12,100 feet.
As Saildrone notes, we’ve only actually mapped around 20% of the Earth’s oceans to date – meaning we know less about it than we do the surface of Mars or the Moon. Saildrone has already been contributing to better understanding this last great frontier with its 23-foot Explorer model, which has already accumulated 500,000 nautical miles of travel on its autonomous sea voyages. The larger vessel will help not only with seafloor mapping, but also with a new DNA sample collection effort using sensors developed the University of New Hampshire and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, to better understand the genetic makeup of various lifeforms that occupy the water column in more parts of the sea.