GLORES team evaluates drone sailboats to help patrol and enforce rules in remote marine protected areas

Marine Conservation Institute is currently researching various surveillance technologies that can be used for enforcement purposes to limit illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing within remote marine protected areas and US marine monuments in the Pacific. Monitoring and enforcement of rules in marine protected areas can be expensive, especially in remote places, with current technologies ― things like big Coast Guard ships that cost $25,000 per day to operate, airplanes and satellites. We have to find some way to lower the cost of doing essential surveillance and enforcement or else our marine protected areas will turn into marine poaching areas. So, we are investigating small autonomous sail boats equipped with cameras on top of the mast, radar to “see” boats from far away and underwater sound receivers (hydrophones) to help find and locate intruders. This kind of technology is important as we implement the recently announced Global Ocean Refuge System since many designated areas will be difficult to patrol and enforce otherwise.

As part of our research, we started working with a company called Saildrone in late 2013 on a test project in the Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean.  Most of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments are a 100 nm x 100 nm square centered on a reef or atoll where commercial fishing is banned.  And all vessels are banned from stopping within a 12 nm radius of the islands so that invasive species don’t have a chance to be introduced. Because remote uninhabited islands are hard to get to and expensive to patrol, autonomous vehicles that can be equipped with various sensors ― such as cameras, hydrophones, radar and vessel identification radio systems― provide a very practical and cost-effective method of surveillance.

As part of its test, Marine Conservation Institute asked Saildrone to sail one of its boats to Palmyra Atoll and perform a lap around the island at a 12nm radius. It was a tough mission because the winds are normally light and Palmyra has some very strong currents around it due to its position in the equatorial current.

The Saildrone boat performed well, taking just 20 days to reach Palmyra from Hawaii, and only 48 hours to complete a circumnavigation of the atoll.  The vehicle encountered some very strong currents (>2.5 knots) in the process, which slowed progress a little, but Saildrone coped well, staying on course and in control. Saildrone proved its potential to act as a future platform that can be used for IUU enforcement purposes within marine protected areas.

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For those of you who want the technology details of Saildrone, here you go.  It is an autonomous vehicle that uses basic sailing fundamentals and wind power for propulsion. See some terrific footage of the boat sailing along in different wind conditions. The solid, freely rotating sail is controlled by a tail and the hull is a hybrid design combining advantages of both mono-and multi-hulls. Saildrone is constructed from high-strength carbon fiber and the solar panels mounted on deck power the electronics package. A great overview of the company and its Saildrone boat was just featured in WIRED magazine.

The entire voyage lasted over 100 days and 6,000 miles. The boat was unscathed and performing just fine when it arrived back in Hawaii after its trip to Palmyra and farther south pretending to be an ocean observing buoy for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The next step is to add the cameras and sensors and show that autonomous sailboats can detect and identify intruding fishing boats!

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