A Saildrone – SD 1021 – has set the record for the fastest unmanned Atlantic crossing, and then immediately broke that record on the return crossing. It also became the first autonomous vehicle to transit the Atlantic in both directions.
Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs), the US-manufactured Saildrones are designed for the planet’s harshest ocean conditions. They’re powered exclusively by the wind for propulsion and use solar energy to run onboard computers and navigational instruments.
They are equipped with a suite of science-grade sensors to collect oceanographic and meteorological data above and below the sea surface, including wind speed and direction, air and sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, photosynthetically available radiation, wave height and period, dissolved oxygen, salinity and acidity levels.
In addition to the standard Saildrone sensor suite, SD 1021 is also equipped with an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) to measure current strength and direction.
There are two typical trans-Atlantic passages: from west to east, vessels take the northern route from New York to the English Channel, benefiting from prevailing westerlies and favourable current. For the east to west, vessels take the southern route, from Spain to Bermuda or the Caribbean. Though the southern route is nearly 1,000 nautical miles longer, crewed vessels enjoy a smoother ride sailing with the trade winds and favourable current.
On its return trip, SD 1021 took the direct northern route, sailing predominantly upwind and against the current, completing the 3,402-nautical mile passage in just 68 days. Her carbon composite wing was damaged in a Gulf Stream storm with winds gusting to 58 knots and waves over 12m high. The vessel’s backup systems allowed it to navigate to Bermuda where it was retrofitted with a new wing and deployed for the Solent.
SD 1021 has sailed some 15,000 nautical miles since first deployed in the Arctic in 2018.
Saildrone’s fleet of USVs is actively engaged in fisheries, bathymetry and climate science missions around the globe, with an additional 50 vehicles expected to be deployed in 2020.