Using Drones for Scientific Research

Unmanned drones, typically called gliders, are being used to give us valuable information about areas of the ocean. They are more versatile and less expensive to use than submersibles and research vessels.

“Gliderpalooza”, is an ocean survey experiment coordinated by 16 American and Canadian government agencies and research teams. Satellites, radar stations, and research buoys have been pooled to assist the fifteen gliders explore the depths of the ocean.

The experiment began in mid September and continued into October. From Nova Scotia to Georgia, the gliders have been exploring the depths of the ocean, collecting data from temperature and salinity to phytoplankton and great white shark populations. Planning is also being done to deploy gliders in the Western Pacific to help forecast storms like Typhoon Haiyan. Gliders can help predict a storm’s intensity, which is affected by ocean temperatures.

The battery powered gliders dive in long swooping curves, taking snapshots of the oceans temperature and currents at different depths. They can reach a depth of 650 feet and can be configured to go deeper. Each glider costs $125,000 to $150,000.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also been testing the use of drones for the past 18 months in marine sanctuaries to see if they can be used for scientific purposes. They purchased three drones and a ground station and have tested them at Channel Island in California, Grey’s Reef in Georgia, Olympic Coast in Washington state and Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii. In September they began a second test in the Florida Keys sanctuary. The first was in the remote Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West.

Potential uses of the drones include wildlife surveys, bird surveys, documenting marine and shoreline debris, assessing prop scar damage, marine mammal strandings and monitoring of oil spills.

NOAA hopes the drones will work for science missions because they are cheaper, greener and safer than manned flights, can operate for two hours on lithium batteries and can be plugged into a wall charger.

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