Unmanned sailing vessels to study fish populations in the Apostle Islands

Saildrone file photo

They might be the strangest looking sailboats that you’ve ever seen navigating the Apostles, but later this month, two bright orange saildrones, with no sailors onboard, will be traversing Lake Superior, collecting data about fish populations.

Two 23-foot-long Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs) are scheduled to launch from Ashland on August 8th, as part of a research project by the US Geological Survey (USGS). These scientific sailboats operate on wind power and solar power. They will use acoustic, or sound technology to gather fish distribution and density data around-the-clock, near Madeline Island, Devils Island and Sand Island in the national lakeshore, as well as in the area of the south shore community of Port Wing.

The US Coast Guard says additional, more distant study areas include Michigan near the upper entry of the Keweenaw Waterway, Ontonagon; Minnesota near Grand Portage, Hovland, Grand Marais, Taconite Harbor, Two Harbors and Duluth. Other sites are near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. The vessels will operate both near shore and offshore.

Parts of a Saildrone USV – image courtesy Saildrone, Inc.

The data collected in Lake Superior follows similar missions in Lakes Michigan and Huron last year on behalf of the US Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center (GSLC). The ongoing research will help inform sustainable management of the $7 billion per year Great Lakes fishing industry. 

File video of a Saildrone USV courtesy Saildrone, Inc.

The company that will launch and operate the research vehicles, Saildrone, Inc., asks boaters to stay at least 500 meters (about 1/3 of a mile) away from the saildrones so they can collect data without any human interference and prevent any collisions. The company says, “Saildrone USVs navigate autonomously from prescribed waypoint to waypoint while staying within a user-defined safety corridor, though actively supervised by a Saildrone Mission Control operator.”

A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday in Ashland. Watch our website and our Facebook feed for updates. The saildrones will be gathering data on Lake Superior through the end of September.

Saildrone at the dock - file photo
Saildrone at the dock – file photo from Saildrone, Inc.

Quick facts about saildrones:

  • Saildrone has two base vehicles:
    Saildrone Explorer – the hull is 23 feet long, the wing is 15 feet tall, the keel draws 6 feet of water
    Saildrone Surveyor – the hull is 72 ft long, the wing is 59 feet tall, the keel draws 13 feet of water
  • Saildrone USVs carry approximately 20 science sensors to collect meteorological and oceanographic data
  • The Saildrone Explorers on Lake Superior will be outfitted with Simrad EK80 echo sounders in addition the standard sensor suite
  • A trim tab on the tail adjusts the wing angle to the wind similar to how an elevator trim tab controls the pitch of an aircraft
  • Saildrone has operated Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific, Atlantic, and coastal missions collecting data related to weather and climate science, carbon uptake, sustainable fisheries management, animal tracking, satellite calibration and validation, oil detection, and bathymetry

    Quick Fact Source: Saildrone, Inc.