“You can’t fix what you can’t measure,” says Sebastien de Halleux, COO of Saildrone. Sounds simple and accurate – now try applying it to oceans, which cover 70% of the earth.

That was the challenge that Mr. Halleux faced following an inspiring sailing trip from San Francisco to Hawaii. Serving as navigator, taking a break from work, he wondered how much we knew about oceans. He soon discovered, not very much.

The Saildrone acts as a roving sensor on the world’s oceans, collecting and transmitting data.

The problem was a scarcity of data. On land there are sensors and points of data collection everywhere you look. Your phone gives you data on the street. When you’re out on the water? Not so much.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just 16 ships and some 200 buoys to study the world’s waters. Satellites help but they can only penetrate through 1 micron of water’s surface from above.

From land speed record to ocean sensors

What’s needed are far more sensors providing much richer data in order to measure, track, and analyze 70% of the world’s surface. So where do you get inspiration for a solution? From setting land speed records, of course.

Ecotricity Greenbird provided design inspiration for Saildrone.

On March 26, 2009, the British Ecotricity Greenbird set a new world land speed record for wind powered vehicles of 126.2 mph. The design for this vehicle served as the inspiration for Saildrone, a company based in Alameda, CA. Saildrone designs and manufactures sailing “drones” that stay on the move while collecting data on the world’s oceans.

Saildrone’s vision is to deploy thousands of drones around the world to continuosly collect data on both the surface and below. The drones use a range of techniques, including sonar, to immediately transmit to satellites for data collection. The result is a massive database that scientists can use to simply better understand an enormous portion of planet earth.

The Saildrone is the size of a medium-sized sailboat and can travel the world autonomously.

The Saildrone is helping study Arctic waters, has sailed into hurricanes, and has monitored the volume of fish species and habits of spotted seals.

Saildrone holds competitions for scientists to see what innovative analysis can be derived from the growing data set. In 2017, a group of scientists used Saildrones to study the intersection of different currents off the coast of California and Baja to better understand how colliding currents affect the surface, atmosphere, and water below.

By increasing the sensors around the world, Saildrone wants to “quantify the world,” providing a far deeper understanding of how the oceans work and how they are changing. As Halleux stated, “we cannot prepare for what we don’t know.”

This kind of work will help all boaters to help navigate with real-time data.

Go deeper with this Ted Talk.