Cutting Edge at the Point

Courtesy photo Members of Saildrone prepare their craft on Ballena Bay. They hope to deploy Saildrones off the California coast later this year to study marine life and collect data.

Engineers developing self-sailing drone technology in warehouse space

Mechanical engineers Richard Jenkins and Daryl Owens are crafting the future at Alameda Point. Their company Saildrone designs and builds drones — not those that fly above us, but those that can sustain themselves on the open sea and that are capable of carrying payloads as heavy as 220 pounds. The design of the company’s 19-foot-long, 7-foot-wide vessels allows these drones to sail in shallow waters and through marine debris, enabling them to go where ships cannot. 

Saildrone is working on three cutting-edge technologies: tracking marine life; gathering marine information at places once considered too remote; and studying the effects of oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Later this year, Saildrone will team up with Barbara Blocks’ team at Stanford University to deploy a shark-tracking Saildrone off California. The company is part of an effort to develop new technology that will allow users to glimpse the processes that influence how open ocean ecosystems work. They will equip the Saildrone with an acoustic receiver and a variety of scientific instruments to track sharks and study the water column wherever these instruments detect these creatures.

The company also plans to sail onto the cutting edge in another field. “We will be outfitting two Saildrones with comprehensive suites of scientific instruments,” Jenkins said. “We will then run some very specific trials to evaluate the technology. We hope to gather some key atmospheric and subsurface measurements.”

The technology that the team at Saildrone is helping to develop could replace ships, weather buoys and drifters that are expensive to deploy and need regular maintenance.  
“If successful, Saildrone would revolutionize the cost of remote ocean measurements and could have a profound effect on the amount of data recovered and hence our understanding of climate change,” Owens said. 

The company is also looking beyond the California coast. They will be testing a Saildrone platform in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Saildrone will assess new technology to detect and track surface films from oil slicks. Saildrone plans to deploy a drone around a natural seep area and in control areas without natural surface slicks. The company will use new technology to detect and track surface films, then report the slicks’ position and size back to base in real time via satellite link.

“This could open many applications in the oil and gas industry for the environmental monitoring of operations,” Jenkins said.