Unmanned surface vessels scanning lakes Michigan, Huron

Saildrone
A pair of 15-foot-high USVs like this one are plying the waters of lakes Michigan and Huron to help the DNR track commercially important fish populations. (SailDrone photo)

While I don’t pretend to have much, if any, influence on the activities and programs of the Michigan DNR, perhaps I’ve touched them a little.

More likely, it’s absolutely coincidental that I wrote a blog for Michigan Outdoor News back in 2018 suggesting sail drones should be utilized to survey and quantify fish populations in the Great Lakes.

Regardless of whether I had anything or nothing to do with the project, a pair of sail drones are now sailing around lakes Michigan and Huron surveying the commercially important fish populations for the DNR.

A sail drone is a USV – unmanned surface vessel – in this case an unmanned sailboat. They are not just drifting aimlessly with the wind and waves, however. Using predominantly wind and solar power, these USVs are coursing about on the lakes on pre-planned routes using on-board GPS technology. Starting in Holland, Michigan, their travels will have the drones coursing through Lake Michigan first, then crossing through the Straits of Mackinac and finishing their journey in Lake Huron.

Each of the two sail drones is fitted with advanced sonar gear to scan the depths below each fishing boat and record the fish “seen” under the boats. These records will be examined and analyzed by trained technicians to help determine the location and population density of important commercial fish populations.

Similar programs have been conducted previously by manned vessels but the drones can do far more at much less expense. It’s expensive for the DNR to operate manned vessels, just from the costs of fuel and manpower. And manned voyages are scheduled with human needs in mind. They can’t run 24/7 for weeks on end. That’s not a problem for the sail drones.

Sail drones have been used for a variety of missions for over a decade in the oceans of the world – to map surface currents, underwater topography, climate analysis and in fisheries assessments, from the Bering Sea to the Antarctic.

This initial Great Lakes program is not just a test, it’s a step forward in understanding the important fish populations present in the Great Lakes and it’s gratifying to see the Michigan DNR using this cutting edge technology.

Hopefully, the information will better assess the affects of commercial fishing on target and non-target species in the lakes.

If the USVs produce the expected data for commercial fish monitoring, perhaps the management teams keeping track of the important recreational fisheries in Michigan’s Great Lakes will be able to put sail drones to work with increased accuracy to modernize their assessment work in the future.

Categories: Blog Content, Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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