Drone boats are needed for Great Lakes research

A fleet of drones or a single ship – which makes more sense? (NOAA photo)

I just read a short story about a fisheries research project being conducted on the West Coast using “saildrones” to study, locate and log the abundance of several species of fish from Vancouver south to San Francisco.

Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered sailboat/drones fitted with highly developed sonar monitoring systems to track, monitor and compile data on the fish swimming below.

Currently, the monitoring of these West Coast stocks fell under the purview of one research vessel, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The research will determine if the drone boats can do the job, and if they can, will they do it as well, equally well, or perhaps even better than the government’s boat. They can certainly do it for much less money and the inventors of the saildrones expect their drone boats will produce much better data than the current ship doing the same job. The NOAA ship is over 200 feet long and carries a crew of 39 sailors and scientists.

I’m reminded of the old joke that starts, “How many government workers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

One of the ways biologists monitor the bait and predator fish in the Great Lakes is with a research vessel equipped with acoustic sensors, similar to the gear on the ship the NOAA uses on the West Coast. When the Great Lakes monitoring program started running these acoustic transects, the effort was on the cutting edge of technology, was good enough for what the biologists and lake managers needed to know, and was very expensive.

Now, it seems, it’s just expensive. With the accuracy of the data coming from the Great Lakes transects being questioned by many – from casual sportfisherman/observers to professional researchers and biologists – perhaps it’s time to contact the saildrone people and see if they can float one of their boats on Lake Michigan and/or the other Great Lakes.

There’s no doubting the earnestness of the workers on the research vessels running transects to monitor the Great Lakes, but the scope, importance and expense of doing it the same way it’s always been done is at the tipping point.

Bring on the drones.

Categories: Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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