Unmanned vessels extend reach for undersea mapping efforts
July 5, 2023
Recent efforts are pushing the boundaries of ocean mapping in Alaska’s waters with the help of automated vessels and collaborative mapping efforts. Experts say these unmanned vessels and ambitious mapping missions can help create safer and more economic expeditions while shedding light on unexplored areas of the oceans.
Meredith Westington, a chief geographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the efforts are critical to understanding the way oceans work and gaining more knowledge about the world.
“It is kind of the foundation of our planet,” she said.
Westington works with Seascape Alaska, a regional initiative working to meet the U.S. goals of mapping the nation’s waters, with a special focus placed on Alaska.
About 70% of Alaska’s waters are unmapped — a percentage that’s much too high for Westington and the rest of Seascape Alaska. That’s because mapping the oceans doesn’t just provide information on the landscape beneath the depths. It also helps illuminate the path that ships might take, some of which bring in many of the goods and services that are essential for Alaskans’ survival, she said.
“The goods that we receive, you know, everything in your house probably came in on a ship at some point. Safe navigation is a key part of our economy, making sure we have free flow and commerce through ports. The oceans are integral to that,” she said.
Seascape Alaska isn’t the only organization working to broaden mapping efforts. Some of their mapping goals are being helped by an organization called Saildrone, which produces uncrewed surface vehicles that are paving the way for ocean mapping.
This year, one of Saildrone’s unmanned surface vehicles completed a mapping mission in the Aleutian Islands, with funding support from NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The vessel mapped more than 6,100 square miles of previously unmapped seafloor surrounding the Aleutian Islands over a period of 52 days. The mission also mapped the seafloor off of California.
Westington said unmanned vessels like the Saildrone Surveyor can be helpful in navigating the often dangerous conditions that come with trying to map remote areas of the seafloor. She also mentioned the constraints that regular crewed ships have to face in the harsh Alaska environment. Extreme ice and weather conditions are just some of the obstacles that make ocean mapping hazardous in the state.
But for an uncrewed vessel like the Saildrone Surveyor, the risks are much lower.
The unmanned vessel is monitored 24/7 by two people who keep an eye on it from the safety of land, said Brian Connon, vice president of ocean mapping at Saildrone. One of these individuals is in charge of safety of the navigation for the vehicle, and one is responsible for managing the sonars onboard that do the actual mapping. Connon said this not only cuts down on the cost of conducting research, which would usually be done by a manned full-size vessel, but it also makes the process much safer for the participants.
“(The Saildrone Surveyor) can stay out there for months at a time not sending people into harm’s way,” he said. “We were in conditions where ships probably would have stopped because their data quality would have been too bad,” he said, referring to the 16-foot swells that the vessel encountered on its mission in the Aleutians.
While mapping efforts conducted by an unmanned vehicle can be important to better understand Alaska’s oceans, experts aren’t relying on them entirely. Unmanned mapping expeditions like Saildrone’s can help expand the work that agencies like NOAA are already working toward, according to Sam Candio, who works with the ship the Okeanos Explorer.
The Okeanos Explorer is a NOAA research vessel that is currently traveling through Alaska to collect data on ocean mapping. The ship’s crew is using data that the Saildrone Surveyor collected to help narrow in on certain areas of interest they’d like to focus on. The Explorer is also contributing to Seascape Alaska’s mission of mapping more of the sea floor.
Candio, who is an expedition coordinator for NOAA ocean exploration, said that when mapping enormous areas like Alaska, it’s important to start with clues to see where areas of interest might be. While data from Saildrone can identify areas that might hold clues to the ocean’s secrets, these clues might come from anywhere. Candio said that they can be as innocuous as stray bubbles that could indicate a possible undersea volcano.
“It’s a mix of trying to focus on areas from clues that we’ve gotten from other sources as well as just seeing what we get when we get out there,” he said.
A key point of interest for the Okeanos Explorer, he said, was seismic activity. Specifically the site of the 1964 earthquake, which had resounding impacts on communities across coastal Alaska.
“(We’re) looking to where the seafloor is alive, looking to where things are changing,” he said.
From May through September of this year, the Okeanos Explorer will be moving through Alaska, stopping in Dutch Harbor and Seward among other locations to gather mapping data for underexplored deep waters. The ship will be collecting data in a similar way that the Saildrone Surveyor did, through advanced sonar technology.
Some of the researchers participating in the expedition will not actually be located on the ship. Similar to how researchers accessed Saildrone data despite not being physically present on the vessel, some of the researchers on the Okeanos Explorer’s mission will be receiving data remotely.
And much of the information researchers will receive remotely will be available to the public. Throughout the mission, the Okeanos Explorer will provide live video and updated data to members of the public who are interested in learning more about their oceans.
“The oceans are way bigger than anybody really knows,” he said. “I still have a hard time conceptualizing how big the oceans are.”
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