Drones explore Lake Huron and neighboring waterways for Great Lakes fishery data

While the buzz of drones zipping through the skies has become more and more commonplace over the years, unmanned vehicles aren’t just limited to our local airspace these days. Last month, two Saildrone Explorers, which are referred to as uncrewed surface vehicles, or USVs, were spotted on the waters of the St. Clair River and Black River canal. The bright orange vessels resembled small sailboats or windsurfing boards — albeit with no one aboard — and were on a 45-day mission to collect scientific data on our Great Lakes.

The mission: The U.S. Geological Survey partnered with Alameda, California-based Saildrone, Inc. on the project. The two Saildrone Explorers set sail from Macatawa, Michigan, this August, a scientific expedition that had the USVs travel northward, up Lake Michigan and into Lake Huron, with the drones spotted in the St. Clair River and Black River canal by mid-October. The Saildrone Explorers were collecting fishery data throughout the two Great Lakes.

Why it’s important: Data collected from the experiment will help towards the sustainable management of the Great Lakes fishing industry, a $7 billion-per-year economy. The heart of the study is “to better understand the effects of large vessel engine noise on fish sampling and catchability,” according to the USGS. Their scientists “will use the data to better understand the effects of invasive mussels and nutrient loss in the water.” Surrounding states, Tribes, and Canadian provinces all stand to benefit.

The vessel: The Saildrone Explorer is a wind- and solar-powered autonomous vehicle, measuring 23 ft. long with a 15 ft. wing sail. Sensors are capable of measuring everything from sea temperature to photosynthetically active radiation. In this study of the lakes Huron and Michigan, the USVs employ acoustic/sound technology, gathering fish distribution and density data.

A freshwater first: While Saildrone, Inc. has deployed their Explorers on missions investigating each of the planet’s seven oceans, this is the first such study to take place on a freshwater body.

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