March 04, 2021

Super Saildrone is Being Tested in the Northeast Pacific: Can A Drone Sailboat Survive the Big Storms?

Imagine a drone weather station located on an unmanned sailboat that could travel anywhere in the world to observe the atmosphere and the ocean surface.

The device exists: the Saildrone, the brainchild of uber engineer Richard Jenkins and the scientists/technologists of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle (see below).

Last year,  Saildrone allowed us to "borrow" a fleet of six of them, stationed in a picket line up and down the West Coast (see my blog on it here).  An exciting experiment, but it revealed a vulnerability of these craft during steep, sharp waves associated with strong storms.   During such periods, the torque on the "sails" was too much, causing them to separate or shear off from the hull.

And this issue would be even more problematic if the Saildrones were used in their "dream" application, observing conditions around hurricanes, where no other craft would dare travel.

Not the kind of folks to avoid a challenge, Richard Jenkins and the engineers at Saildrone come up with a potential solution, a Saildrone that was designed for extreme conditions, using a shorter, stubby sail less vulnerable to strong shear forces.

Here it is (below)...the new Saildrone, hull 1054.   This year NOAA has sponsored a test experiment, right off our coast, with the hope of catching some big waves and weather.  If successful, the plan is to put some of these new Saildrones in harm's way during hurricane season next year.

Today was a test of the new Saildrone.   A fairly strong front moved across the coastal waters and the Saildrone was there (see a map of the location this afternoon).

The forecast surface weather map for 7 AM this morning showed a potent low center off NW Washington Island and a strong front to its south, with winds getting up to around 50 knots (blue colors).  The kind of system that might produce some sharp, steep waves.

And I have good news.  The Saildrone survived fine and I have the observations to prove it!
 Here are the significant wave heights today (ending at 3 PM)--they got to around 5 meters.

Winds peaked out around 35 knots, with a sharp wind shift from southeasterly to southerly flow at the end.

During the next several weeks we will be looking for more strong weather systems in the hope of putting the Saildrone into harm's way.  The only "problem" is that this is a La Nina year, and such years often have high-pressure building off the West Coast and fewer big storms.

Tomorrow has another major blow off our coast (see forecast sea level pressures and maximum wind gusts for 4 PM Friday), so our Saildrone may get another good test during the afternoon!  Keep your fingers crossed!


  1. I want to BE the sail drone. Sound like a fun job. How can I make this happen?

  2. I remember this from a while back. I am really curious if they worked with any of the aviation group at NOAA regarding building the sensors strong enough to handle extreme conditions, of which they are experienced in (i.e. flying into hurricanes!).

  3. Well, they put a permanent reef into the mainsail. Not a very imaginative solution. To what degree has this degraded the drone's sailing performance in typical conditions?

    1. You would think they could lower the top into the bottom...have options.

  4. As a sailor myself, I'm interested to know what is the closest angle to the eye of the wind that these little drones can manage? A rigid sail perhaps does better than a cloth one?

  5. I am hoping you will have one of these at the next Pacific NW weather conference. Any idea on when that may happen?

  6. Maritime law could be a problem as it's legal to salvage any unmanned craft especially in international waters.

  7. I wonder if they have looked into stays like us engineers use to hold up bridges?

    In this case stays from the hull would de-strain the sail,
    perhaps needs an extender pole on top if sails need to turn
    or even outriggers to give more spread to optimize forces.
    (But an outrigger design that can upright after getting flipped).

    (I only just started thinking about it for about a minute).


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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